Strained Clinics: Will they be ready for patient onslaught?

Los Angeles community clinics and health centers already have waiting rooms brimming with patients.

And they’re expecting thousands more newly insured patients come January 1, when Affordable Care Act coverage first takes effect.

Few feel the anticipation – or the heat – more than Louise McCarthy, president and CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.  Her members operate 53 nonprofit health centers and nearly 200 clinics countywide. They see more than a million patients a year, more than many states do in their clinic systems.

McCarthy knows that, under the new law, clinics are key to making sure enough care is provided as demand for health services soars. The federal government knows it too. Nationwide, clinics have received about $12 billion to increase capacity; $81 million of that has gone to Los Angeles County.

El Proyecto del Barrio provides a good example of what is happening in clinics across the state. El Proyecto has served low-income and uninsured clients for four decades. It operates clinics in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys.

Despite having recently added 16 new exam rooms to its Winnetka health clinic, one worker says they’re bursting at the seams.

“I’m already believing that we’ve outgrown this building,” said Elder Orlando Ayala, a physician assistant, referring to the 30,000 square foot structure. “We’re going to have to expand because our patient base is going to expand.”

His colleague, physician assistant Eric Laviaddin, guesses that the Winnetka facility could be serving from 2,000 to 5,000 new patients a month when Obamacare really takes hold.

He says they’ll need more doctors, more physician assistants, more nurses, more nurse practitioners, more receptionists and more call center helpers to keep up with the load.

McCarthy says there is little choice; clinics like El Proyecto’s have to make the Affordable Care Act work. The spotlight’s on them.

“If we can’t succeed here, California can’t succeed. If California can’t succeed with this, then the nation can’t succeed,” she said.

“So yes, we’re absolutely feeling the pressure is on us.”

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Lauren M. Whaley

Freelance journalist Lauren M. Whaley is a photographer, radio producer and print reporter specializing in topics related to mental illness, reproductive health care and health disparities. She is also a childbirth photographer.This year, She is working on a series about how low-income parents access care for perinatal mental illnesses. The project is funded in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.She was a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Her work has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) STEM story project. She has contributed radio, video, photography and written stories to KQED Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times and other media outlets. For six years, she worked as the Center for Health Reporting's multimedia journalist. She is a past president of the national organizationJournalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and spent her early 20s leading canoe expeditions for young women, including a solo-led 45-trip in the Canadian Arctic. She is based in Los Angeles.

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