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Physicians plan debut of clinic for uninsured


San Diego Union Tribune, May 2005

By Anne Krueger

May 2, 2005

EL CAJON – They’ve got the doctors, they’ve got the equipment and they’ve got the enthusiasm to start a medical clinic for working people who are uninsured.

Now all they need is the modular building, and that’s expected to arrive by August. The Volunteers in Medicine clinic is expected to open soon after the building is in place.

Almost four years after Dr. Gresham Bayne of Point Loma heard the pitch for a clinic staffed by volunteer physicians, the medical facility is close to becoming a reality.

Bayne said the clinic will serve thousands of El Cajon residents who can’t afford medical insurance but earn too much to qualify for low-income medical programs such as Medi-Cal.

“We want to provide health care for free for people who don’t have alternatives,” Bayne said.

The clinic will be the first in California to be opened by Volunteers in Medicine, a national organization that works to bring together retired health professionals and patients who don’t have medical insurance. Since 1993, when the group opened its first clinic in Hilton Head Island, S.C., 31 clinics have been set up nationwide.

The El Cajon center will be behind Chapel of the Valley United Methodist Church on East Madison Avenue near East Main Street. The church has agreed to a 30-year lease for $1 annually.

John Hughes, who heads social service programs for San Diego County Methodist churches, said patients at the clinic will receive “Nordstrom-quality care.” When they arrive, they will be welcomed by a greeter. Appointments will typically last about 30 minutes, and patients will continue to see the same doctor during follow-up visits. All services, including medications, are provided at no cost.

“They’re treated as a real person, not some charity case,” said Dr. Garry Bradt, a retired La Mesa physician who’s a member of the Volunteers in Medicine board. “It’s based on the concept of ‘I’m your family doctor.’ ”

About 9,000 people a year are expected to be treated at the clinic, just a small proportion of the estimated 20,000 people without medical insurance who live nearby. The clinic will be open afternoons and evenings Mondays through Saturdays, a schedule designed to better serve people who work.

The idea for the clinic grew out of a luncheon in August 2001 between Bayne and Dr. Jack McConnell, founder of Volunteers in Medicine. Bayne’s pastor, Art Sueltz of Point Loma Community Presbyterian Church, arranged for the two to meet, and Bayne was quickly sold on the idea of setting up a clinic in San Diego County.

Finding physicians willing to work at the clinic was one of the easiest steps. When the San Diego County Medical Society sent out a notice seeking volunteers, 66 health professionals signed up. A federal law shields doctors working as volunteers from malpractice lawsuits.

Bayne initially planned to locate the clinic in Point Loma, and he spent a year and a half looking at sites. He said he gave up on the area because the land was too expensive and some neighbors didn’t want a clinic in the area.

Bayne also met some resistance when he proposed the El Cajon site. The city Planning Commission rejected the clinic after concerns were raised about whether a commercial business should be allowed in a residential neighborhood.

Volunteers in Medicine-San Diego appealed the decision to the City Council, which approved the project in December 2003.

Bayne said opponents were concerned the clinic would attract homeless people to the area. He said all new patients will be screened by a social worker to determine whether they are eligible for care, and homeless people will be referred to community clinics.

“We don’t anticipate seeing homeless people except once by mistake,” he said.

Joe Garzanelli, an El Cajon real estate broker, said his concerns about the clinic were allayed after meeting with representatives from Volunteers in Medicine.

“Everything they said was just wonderful,” he said. “I don’t know how we could complain about something like that.”

The group initially planned to construct a $2 million, 15,000-square-foot building in El Cajon, but put off those plans while it raises money for the project. In the meantime, they’ll be putting up a 1,500-square-foot modular building.

The Grossmont Healthcare District board recently agreed to award $50,000 to Volunteers in Medicine to help bring the modular building to El Cajon.

Bayne said he and the others hope to eventually build 10 clinics in San Diego County. Their schedule will be based on interest and money they are able to raise. With 400,000 medically uninsured people in the county, there is no doubt of the need, he said.

“You’ve got to fix it one patient at a time,” he said.


Anne Krueger: (619) 593-4962; anne.krueger@uniontrib.com

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