Santa Monica is well known for featuring two hard-to-miss medical facilities: the and . But not as many people—including residents—are aware of the , the myriad services it provides and the thousands of individuals it serves annually.
Drive past Ocean and 17th, and chances are you'll miss the WFHC. Located in a nondescript storefront building, "people don't realize that we're here," President/CEO Debra A. Farmer told Santa Monica Patch in a recent interview.
In fact, the WFHC has been at its current location since 1974. Step inside, and you'll find that many people—most of them clients—have indeed discovered the health center. The no-frills waiting rooms are typically jam-packed, so much so that patients usually have to wait multiple hours to be seen by staff members.
The WFHC's administrative offices are modestly sized as well. The center's 42 employees—from doctors to administrators—work in cramped quarters, and it's tricky for two of them to fit side-by-side in most of the hallways.
This type of confined environment would seem to be a hatching ground for bad attitudes and bickering. But the opposite is actually the case: Spirits are generally high among gracious patients and smiling staff alike.
What's responsible for the apparent paradox? Probably this: By all indications, many of the people who seek medical services at the WFHC wouldn't be able to get them elsewhere, and the staff takes pride in being able to help people in dire need.
"They leave here with their meds, their labs are done here, they get counseling and education services," Farmer said. Other services include HIV prevention, gynecological exams, hearing screenings, Pap smears, family planning, birth control and mammograms.
Last year alone, the WFHC served a whopping 9,200 patients—78 percent of them female—who visited the center a combined 30,000 times. They included unemployed individuals, students and undocumented workers.
And here's an even more staggering figure: 86 percent of the patients are uninsured.
"In the last two years, we've seen more and more members of the community," Farmer said. "First they lost their jobs, and then they lost their homes."
Over the past five years, the number of patients who are treated at the WFHC has increased by 26 percent. Visits have gone up by 39 percent, which "means patients are getting sicker than they used to be," according to Farmer.
Farmer says that, due to the country's poor economic conditions, people are more reluctant to seek preventative care, which in turn leads to more serious health issues.
The rise in patients and visits has exacerbated the WFHC's need to raise more money. That's not to mention what potentially lies ahead: If the Affordable Care Act takes effect as scheduled in January 2014, 32 million more Americans—including 4 million Los Angelenos—would have health care access.
"We'll be overrun by patients," Farmer predicted. "People who have [health] insurance use that insurance."
[Go here to read more from Farmer on the possible impacts of health care reform on the WFHC.]
If health care reform goes according to plan, the WFHC might relocate east of Santa Monica. Doing so could allow Farmer to realize one of her goals: adding behavioral health and oral health to the center's already-extensive list of services.
At present, a 36-foot mobile unit is in the works. It would feature two exam rooms and travel throughout the Westside, stopping at schools, community centers, day-labor sites and, on Sundays, churches. Funding for the van was made possible by the federal stimulus plan.
The WFHC has an operating budget of $4.8 million. Most of that money comes from federal funding, but the remaining 20 percent is amassed through fees for services, along with donations from corporate foundations and individuals. Fees are collected from patients on a sliding scale, while an annual gala is staged to help drive in donations.
But fundraising can be difficult when many people don't know you exist. Accordingly, in October, Celia Bernstein was hired as the director of development, in part to help expand outreach to the philanthropic community. The WFHC has also launched a , in which various health topics—including menopause and talking with your teen about sex—are discussed.
Bernstein said the series is aimed in part at Westside moms, so they become aware of the center. "We want to explain to them, 'Your nannies and housekeepers and gardeners go here,' " she said.
But if funding needs aren't met in the future, employees would have to be let go, Farmer said.
"We're not fancy," she said, noting the center's modest design. "The only place to cut is people."
Most of the WFHC employees—which include Santa Monica residents—have been at the center for more than five years. There are two doctors, two nurse practitioners, three physician assistants, four outreach workers and four certified nurse midwives, who help deliver roughly 300 babies a year.
Farmer, who previously worked at Planned Parenthood and the Ahmanson Foundation, was brought in 12 years ago, when the center was losing money. Then, it had an operating budget of $1.8 million, 23 employees and 11,000 visits a year.
In 1992, the center integrated pediatrics into its services, and in 1999, it added a family practice and started accepting male patients. But, as Farmer is quick to point out, "The space hasn't changed."
Nevertheless, the WFHC has succeeded in making patients feel at home.
"When we talk with the patients, they say they love the health care, but also that they get the support they need—mental and emotional as well," Farmer said.
"We want them to feel like it's a family when they come here."