Running short on cash and facing an imminent shutdown, Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinic officials issued an urgent plea Wednesday for the community’s help in raising the money needed to cover operating costs while they work to revamp their business model by the end of the year.
“We are at risk of closing our doors today,” Acting CEO Mark Palmer told reporters gathered in a conference room at the organization’s Eastside Clinic.
The clinics, located on the Eastside and Westside of Santa Barbara, and in Isla Vista, serve as the only health-care option for many low-income people in the area.
Last year, Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics served nearly 17,000 patients, 95 percent of whom were below the poverty line.
A third of those were children, and 66 percent of the people served are Hispanic.
In a medical landscape where primary care physicians are becoming increasingly rare, and emergency room care often becomes the only medical attention poorer residents have access to, the clinics’ mission has been treating all patients, regardless of ability to pay.
But while their mission may be noble, the clinics are in financial trouble.
A perfect storm of forces have coalesced, Palmer said, creating the current situation.
An increase in patients over the past five years, most unable to pay for services, plus a decline in community giving, which helps to fund operations, have contributed to the problem.
Larger forces also have been at work, such as the requirement to digitize medical records and other changes required for the Affordable Care Act.
“The medical landscape is changing incredibly,” he said, and the organization’s business model must change.
In order to figure out how to best do that, the organization assembled an advisory group, which included leaders from Cottage Hospital, Sansum Clinics, Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and CenCal.
Through those talks, the group has identified five areas that need to change substantially to be sustainable.
They include reimbursement rates for patients — Palmer said Neighborhood Clinics has the lowest reimbursement rates of any medical establishment locally; managing costs, private insurance, and expanding grants and community support.
As a result of those talks, Cottage Hospital agreed to pay for HFS Consultants to look into how to best craft a new business model for the organization.
The path to sustainability is there, but it will take six months to get a plan in place.
“We need time to implement,” Palmer said.
To allow for six months and remain operating during that time, the clinics need $1.5 million to cover operating costs.
That will pays for everything from doctor paychecks to keeping the lights on, and that campaign for funding begins now.
In addition to addressing their immediate needs for operating dollars, another challenge looms over the clinics.
With ACA implementation at the beginning of next year, the clinic expects to see even more patients. Though many of those people will qualify for federal and state money to pay for care, more clinicians and primary care doctors will have to be hired to deal with the demand.
Medical Director Dr. Charles Fenzi called the ACA “a mixed bag” for that reason, and added that the ACA still does nothing to cover undocumented people, who make up a large portion of the clinic’s patients.
The ACA also does not cover dental care at all, and Quynh Nguyen, DDS, was on hand to talk about what she’s seen at the quarterly dental clinics that offer free care.
People often begin forming lines outside, around the building, the night before the clinics just to be seen, she said.
Elimination of dental benefits from Medi-Cal in 2009 by the state Legislature in order to save money left many people without access to dental care, so the clinics work to see as many people as possible.
Distributing oral health kits has also been key, and it’s not unusual to see an entire family who will share a toothbrush received from the clinic, she said.
If the clinics go away, patients will end up on the emergency room more often than they do now, which is extremely costly and doesn’t provide the depth of care that a primary doctor can, Fenzi said.
“This is about community health,” he said. “We serve the people that take care of our gardens and work in our restaurants… This is a clinic where an important population comes to get health care.”
Donations may be made online at www.sbclinics.com or mailed to Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, 1900 State St., Suite G, Santa Barbara 93101.
For more information, please call Coleen McBride, Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics Development & marketing coordinator, at 805.617.7869.