Silver Lake – It’s been a long strange trip for the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic. Half a century ago when it first opened, it had a heavy caseload of patients with venereal diseases. Eventually those cases declined. But now … well, actually, STDs are making a comeback.

“They were up. Then they were down, and now they’re up again,” said Teresa Padua, executive director of the clinic.

Now, after tracking and treating STDs and all sorts of other diseases and illnesses over the years, this Silver Lake institution and a survivor of the free-clinic movement is preparing to celebrate its silver anniversary. Staff and supporters will be marking the milestone with an awards ceremony at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre on Oct. 4.

The Unique Role of Free Clinics

The free clinic can be a different kind of medical practice than hospital work, according to Dr. Moises Cruz, who has now been with the clinic for 15 years.

“You have limited resources,” he said. “So you learn to rely more on clinical acumen, rather than rely on diagnostics.”

For example, if a patient has a heart murmur, a doctor at a regular hospital might automatically order an echocardiogram. But if you don’t have the right kind of machine for that, you go back to older fashioned medical detective work – examining the patient’s medical history, for instance, while determining just what kind of murmur this sounds like, Cruz said.

This direct connection with an indigent community goes all the way back to the founding of free clinics citywide, when the regular patients were often what you might expect in 1968: Hippies, young runaways, and other members of the counter culture, according to Prof. Rebecca Therese Baird of Porterville College, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the early days of the Los Angeles Free Clinic.

Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic History

One of the people involved in organizing the Silver Lake clinic early on was Kelly Hodel, a former Navy combat medic, Baird said. Hodel had been an early medical director and then co-administrator of the original Los Angeles Free Clinic near what is now The Grove. He helped with the Hollywood Sunset clinic at the direction of the county, which had warmed up to the idea of free clinics after some initial tensions.

“The county kind of co-opted him,” Baird said of Hodel, who is scheduled to be at the Oct. 4 ceremony.

Nowadays, the clinic still serves many indigent patients. But often, it’s also people who are merely between jobs and need health care to keep going until they find something, Padua said. Some also need a tuberculosis test to qualify for a job, or to get their kids immunized for school.

The Impact of Obama Care

The clinic saw a dip in demand when the Affordable Care Act first took hold, Padua said. But people started coming in again when they found that some services weren’t covered by their insurance, or they couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment for three months just to get permission to return to work. Many doctors aren’t even taking patients anymore, Padua said.

Common complaints in recent times have included high blood pressure and diabetes.

“There’s a lot of stress around, these days,” Padua said.

Free clinic services now also include acupuncture and tattoo removal, as well as help from the clinic’s thrift store in dressing for a job interview.

And there’s one other change: Baird said a founder of the original LAFC – Barry Liebowitz – quit his job at Kaiser Permanente around the late 1960s over his involvement with the free clinic. But these days, many of the doctors now come from the HMO giant, Padua said. Dr. Cruz even did his residency for Kaiser at the clinic. He’s been coming back ever since.

“What keeps me going to the clinic is the patients …. to help people with great need,” said Cruz. It’s rewarding to have patients so grateful. Some of that gets lost in a regular clinic. It’s sort of selfish. But it’s rewarding to me to get that interaction.”

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