The South Bay Family Health Care system began with the free clinic movement in 1969
Free clinic for all
Fifty years ago, a group of volunteers gave birth to a free medical clinic that would grow up to become the South Bay Family Health Care system, with six clinics providing a wide range of services. The clinics’ first half-century – which will be celebrated with a gala on Saturday – featured a fitful beginning, notable accomplishments, and a consuming challenge of deadly and epidemic proportions.
The result is a skillfully run, professionally staffed nonprofit that provides comprehensive medical care, dentistry, HIV testing and counseling, dispensaries and lab services for 60,000 patient visits each year.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be part of a movement,” said Brooke McIntyre Tuley, the director of outreach and volunteers, who joined the original clinic in 1972, when she was 17.
Back then the South Bay looked a lot different than it does now. Stragglers from the Summer of Love could afford to hole up in Hermosa Beach, and Hells Angels hung out at the Taco Bell next to the pier. Brooke’s brother, a combat medic, had just returned from Vietnam.
Brooke was working “odd jobs” and trying to figure out what to do with her life. Her search for purpose prompted her to volunteer at the clinic, a catch-all outfit offering medical help, legal help and various referrals for a clientele that included “throw-away kids” who had drifted from the protections of society’s bosom.
“Young people were experiencing newfound sexual freedom that the previous generation didn’t have, and now you get drugs involved,” Tuley said. “It was hard for kids to go to their parents or guardians to ask for help.”
Tuley’s brother and future sister-in-law had been urging her to seek full-time employment at the clinic. She did so in 1974, prompted in part by a spooky brush with fame involving the militant Symbionese Liberation Army and its kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.
“I was working at a dental lab in Inglewood, at Century and Crenshaw, down the street from the drive-in where the SLA holed up in a van” before robbing the nearby Mel’s Sporting Goods store.
During the getaway, Hearst rained semi-automatic gunfire into the store’s front windows. A short time after that, Tuley was driving denture-making forms around the area for her employer when some bystanders took her for Hearst, who was out on the lam.
“People were pointing and yelling ‘It’s Patty Hearst! It’s Patty Hearst!’” Tuley recalled with a laugh. “I was looking around like ‘Where? Where?’
“About that time a job came up at the clinic and I thought, I’ll take it.”
Putting down roots
A spate of free clinics had popped up in several parts of the nation including San Diego, San Pedro, and the Haight in San Francisco. The South Bay Free Clinic initially secured a modest office on Pacific Coast Highway at Eighth Street in Hermosa Beach, but the neighbors protested.
“They thought we would attract all the drug addicts, there would be hypodermic needles spilling out of trash cans,” Tuley said.
The City Council gave the clinic the boot, and the clinic was replaced by the Tender Box, a store that sold adult films and sex paraphernalia.
The clinic moved to Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Some residents protested there as well, but city officials welcomed the operation in a by-the-book fashion.
“In Manhattan Beach, they just followed the rules and regulations,” Tuley said. “We met the criteria and we were allowed to open up. They just went by the codes. They were thoughtful.”
Patients began arriving right away, seeking help with drug addiction, mental health issues, birth control, dentistry, even legal services, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
“It was called VD back then,” Tuley said.
“We were trying to cover all the bases in the beginning,” she said. “We tried to meet the needs and demands of the community at the time.”
By the late 1970s, the clinic had hit its stride. It had sorted out its mission, deciding which maladies it would focus on treating and which it would refer to other professionals. The seat-of-the-pants period was over, and the scruffy free clinic reputation was falling away.
“By then it was, we’re serious, we’re here to stay,” Tuley said.
In 1980 the clinic opened a second location in Gardena.
Also during the ‘80s, the clinic launched a teen advocate program. Teens received extensive health training and worked to promote abstinence or safe sex, dispel misinformation about health issues, and drive inebriated peers safely home from parties. The safe drivers coordinated their efforts by walkie talkie.
Overshadowing all else in the decade was a galvanizing challenge to public health worldwide, the rise of a mysterious and deadly condition that came to be identified as HIV/AIDS. It was a stigmatizing and little understood disease, known in its early days as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
“We saw the need, readjusted, and did the call to arms,” Tuley said.
The clinic collaborated with other agencies to form a battle plan, and became one of the first to provide anonymous HIV testing, at a time when people contracting HIV were being dropped by their health insurers.
“There was so much misinformation, a false sense that if I’m heterosexual it can’t happen to me,” Tuley said. “The parents of that generation were struggling with it, didn’t understand it. We heard ‘They deserve that.’ Nobody deserves that.”
Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became one of Tuley’s heroes when he tried to stem the spread of HIV-AIDS, sounding a national alarm for education, testing, and safe sex. To her disappointment, however, his call went largely unheeded, and the disease burst into an epidemic.
In the early 1990s, basketball superstar Magic Johnson gave AIDS awareness a huge boost when he told the world he had tested positive for HIV. His announcement prompted people to flood the clinic for testing, Tuley said.
“That phone started ringing even before he walked off the stage,” she said. “We had been testing 150 to 200 people a month, and then we were testing 1,000 people a month.”
Jann Hamilton Lee took the reins as president and CEO in 1999, when the Redondo Beach clinic opened, and the clinic system began providing health services on the Carson High School campus.
Lee oversaw the opening of a clinic in Inglewood in 2003 and the establishment of an OB/GYN satellite clinic in Inglewood in 2007. Currently, the clinic’s pediatric services are undergoing an expansion in Gardena.
“We used to be called non-traditional, now we are called a traditional provider,” said Tuley, who last year oversaw 80 volunteers, who logged more than 2,400 hours.
The clinic system has been recognized as one of the state’s top performing nonprofits, and continues to vigorously expand its management systems and medical hardware.
Last year the clinics completed a system-wide computer overhaul, replacing a dedicated server with Cloud-based storage, giving doctors and clinicians quick access to an advanced data trove to aid diagnosis, treatment and referrals.
In addition, the Inglewood clinic received a cutting edge retinal camera. The clinic system hosted 425 area residents at World AIDS Day, and provided more than 1,760 free health screenings at older adult health fairs.
Lee focuses much of her efforts on stretching the clinic’s $13 million budget to cover the costs of the comprehensive, high-quality care.
“It keeps me up at night,” she said.
The clinics count on federal and county funding to cover about two-thirds of their costs, and they get some reimbursement from Medi-Cal and Covered California. But that leaves a significant gap each year to be filled by foundation grants and donations from corporations and individuals.
It’s top-flight care on a shoestring.
The clinics employee their own doctors and clinicians, using volunteers at that level only as a second option.
“Recruitment is an issue,” Lee said. “Most of our providers are employees, and the problem we see with recruitment is our ability to compete with Kaiser, Torrance Memorial, Harbor-UCLA.”
Most patients learn of the clinics through word-of-mouth or referrals from Medi-Cal or another entity. Many have chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, in part because of a lack of preventive care.
“Most of the people we see are sick. We serve them for primary care, and they can come in for a physical, but they often do not,” Lee said. “It’s a matter of finding transportation, or not wanting to take a day off work. If they’re feeling well, they don’t come in.”
The clinic system does not take positions on politicians’ healthcare proposals, but Lee supports “anything that provides more availability of healthcare.”
She spends her days in meetings, dealing with logistical issues, coordinating with other area healthcare providers, and raising money.
“I see such need,” she said. “I can’t do it. Whatever I can do to keep these resources available to the community, I have to do my best to help out.”
South Bay Family Health Care celebrates 50 years of high-quality health care for the South Bay and Harbor Gateway communities at the “Excellence in HealthCare” Gala on Saturday, March 30, at the Marriott Torrance-Redondo Beach. Honorees will be past president Annette Graw, State Sen. Ben Allen, and John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan. For more see SBFHC.org.