Monday, March 13, 2006 | While other cities across the state and country have access to county funded hospitals, San Diego relies on community clinics to fill the healthcare void at the local level.
For some, getting to the clinics can be a problem. In Logan Heights it definitely is. For residents of the neighborhood, transportation is a barrier – they must accommodate their lifestyles around bus and trolley schedules, or ride their bikes just to get to work, school or even clinic appointments.
“A lot of times our waiting rooms fluctuate with the bus schedule, so it’s not like you can have everyone scheduled every 15 minutes because there is always going to be a steady stream,” said Jennette Lawrence, director of government and community relations for Family Health Centers of San Diego.
“When the bus comes, the rooms are going to fill up. That is going to be stressful if you are used to working in a private practice where everyone drives their car to appointments,” she said.
As Lawrence has witnessed, the community clinic’s role of serving the underserved is surely not for everyone, it is a roll-with-the-punches atmosphere that they absorb day-to-day and patient-by-patient.
According to a 1999 report by the Alliance Healthcare Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation, about 27 percent of San Diego County residents under the age of 65 are uninsured. That means 637,000 people are living locally without the means to access quality and affordable healthcare for themselves.
Lawrence said the necessity for clinics in neighborhoods like Logan Heights is on the rise because of the number of medically uninsured residents in the county.
“One in five San Diegans is uninsured, we’re one of the largest uninsured populations in the country,” Lawrence said.
A county funded hospital could alleviate this situation by helping bring quality care to patients at a lower cost. But, alas, our county does not have one.
The county only has a mental-health facility.
Tired of being left out of the healthcare system and foreseeing a future struggle for their resident’s well-being, some San Diego communities have stepped in to fill part of the void.
In 1970, the need for medical care was ever-present in the barrio. Community activists wanted the clinic (in what is now the Family Health Centers of San Diego, or FHCSD, network) to be located on National Ave, in Logan Heights, because of its central location. And so, the birth of what was formerly called the Chicano Free Clinic grew out of a community’s vision of affordable healthcare for their people.
Interstate 5 had already bisected the barrio, turning them into a displaced community – and in 1969 the Coronado Bay Bridge became a permanent fixture cutting deeper into the heart of the barrio. It was then that the area felt it needed to find their voice. And so, activists demanded a community park and succeeded in acquiring it by uniting in force.
It was a time of evolution for the area, as the activists gathered for what would soon be known as the takeover of Neighborhood House and the people’s fight for healthcare.
“There was conversation going around at the time that there was nothing to serve the community,” said Maria Garcia, one of the original clinic advocates. “It was a time when there was a lot of turmoil and Latinos were taking over.”
The building where the clinic was to be located had been used during World War II as a place where volunteers would gather to wrap bandages for the wounded as part of the war effort. Feeling the building’s original intended use had been lost, residents took over and occupied the building, demanding that a clinic be built.
At the time, Garcia was a college student studying to be a teacher. She recalled that her then-61-year-old friend, Laura Rodriguez led the acquisition.
“It got later and colder, and Laura decided to chain herself to the front door [of the building]. Students from San Diego State were there – all picketing and the cops were across the street. And so she asked me, are you going to sleep here? And I said, I guess I will.”
After eight days of occupation, the protestors succeeded in being heard, but it was not a done deal. Garcia said that Neighborhood House had threatened to prosecute, resulting in the formation of a negotiation committee to find a concession. Months later, the mood shifted, and the city of San Diego gifted the building to the people of Logan Heights.
Three years after the gifting, the Chicano Free Clinic incorporated into the Family Health Centers of San Diego, which is one of 24 sites within FHCSD that help county families receive the healthcare they otherwise wouldn’t afford.
For many years, the services offered by the clinic were free, but that soon changed as needs grew. Now, they offer affordability by way of what FHCSD calls the “sliding-fee scale,” which goes by a patient’s salary to determine what they can afford to pay for services. They may be happy with the services, but not everyone is thrilled about the name change from the Chicano Free Clinic to Family Health Centers of San Diego,
“It irks the hell out of me that it’s not the Chicano Free Clinic,” Garcia said. “It was said it was not respectable to be called that, but it will always be the Chicano Clinic for me. It was always about providing health care, and I think it still is.”
By securing every dollar raised for patient care and minimizing administrative costs they have been able to provide beautiful and clean clinics, however Lawrence said, they aren’t fancy.
Walking through the halls of the Logan Heights FHCSD clinic, the staff seemed to really want to provide for the families that overwhelmed the waiting rooms.
From dental and optometry divisions to family practice and obstetrics, everything related to healthcare can basically be found under one roof. They even have tattoo removal – at a price community service hours – for people who want to “turn their lives around.”
This all seemed to be far from what the original founders of the clinic envisioned, and yet it was just what their community deserved.
“For us it’s being treated with respect no matter where you came from or what you need and it’s knowing that the person you are going to see is going to speak your language, and understand your culture and feeling comfortable that you’re going to afford it,” Lawrence said.
“We’re going to do everything we can if you’re sick, you’re never going to be turned away, you’re always going to be welcomed, and we’re here for the long haul.”
As for people who need healthcare but cannot make it to one of the clinics, they have mobile units that travel around the neighborhoods and provide free services.
FHCSD has found by having them out in the neighborhoods, “we just eliminated any barrier someone could come up with for not seeking care.”
Together, the clinics that make up the FHCSD network are bringing affordable healthcare to more than 70,000 poverty level individuals yearly, and over 300,000 annual visits to patients countywide.
For more information about the Family Health Centers of San Diego or for mobile unit locations call (619) 515-2315, or visit www.fhcsd.org
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice’s Editorial Assistant. Please contact her directly at