County could spend $1.5 million to expand free health clinic, internship program to Oxnard

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The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has pushed forward a proposal to spend $1.5 million to help a Thousand Oaks free clinic that includes medical career training for high school students expand to Oxnard.

The long-running Westminster Free Clinic receives 8,000 visits a year from uninsured patients, most of them immigrants with low-paying jobs, in its once-a-week program at United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks.

Driven by volunteers, the clinic utilizes high school students as medical assistants in an almost 20-year-old internship program called Healthcare Pathways that has helped lead graduates to careers as doctors and health care workers.

Supervisors moved the project ahead May 21 but have not given final approval. They voted 5-0 to ask staff to come back with a report on the feasibility and logistics of providing three years of startup funding to expand the program by starting a Pathways program and free clinic in Oxnard.

Program would open by end of the year

“It was a pretty substantial commitment for the board to go forward,” said Supervisor Steve Bennett, who brought the proposal forward with Supervisor John Zaragoza. “It’s a tremendously successful program in east county that has trained hundreds of young people to go on to medical careers, almost all of them low-income kids.”

The money would come from the county’s 2019-20 fiscal year budget but would be dispersed by the Ventura County Community Foundation with $600,000 the first year, $500,000 the second year and $400,000 in the final year.

The program requires about $700,000 a year and the balance would come from fund-raising efforts that would also support the clinic after the county agreement expires.

If the funding receives final approval, the training program and clinic could open by the end of the year, likely housed in an Oxnard church, said Lisa Safaeinili, Westminster executive director. The clinic would operate once a week and would be projected to serve about 5,000 patients a year.

‘We see ourselves as a bridge’

The patients would come from west Ventura County. They would be caught in the uninsurance gap, meaning they make too much to qualify for Medi-Cal but not enough to find affordable health care.

As in Thousand Oaks, treatment in Oxnard would be provided by volunteer primary care doctors and specialists including optometrists, podiatrists, dentists and behavioral health professionals.

“We see ourselves as a bridge to county services,” said Safaeinili, noting the program helps people begin to deal with chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. “We know there are people out there who are putting off care.”

The heart of the program is its training for high school students. About 70 students from communities across west Ventura County would serve as medical assistants in the first year with the number growing in future years. They would check the patient’s temperature, pulse and respiration.

The students also would gather patients’ medical histories and convey the information to the doctor, practicing their reports with nurses.

In Thousand Oaks, more than 100 students make a two-year commitment to the program, many of them coming from immigrant families. The program is designed to open doors.

“We get kids placed in college and help them reach their dreams,” said Safaeinili, noting that program participants have gone on to become doctors, social workers and dental hygienists.”Their whole belief in what they can accomplish is changed.”

Bennett contends the program could help provide future generations of family practice doctors and also saves the county money by providing early care that helps keep people out of emergency rooms.

“You’re getting a two for one,” he said.

The board is expected to discuss the issue again in June.

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