Elizabeth Benson Forer, MSW, MPH. CEO and Executive Director at Venice Family Clinic tells us about helping patients and communities get and stay healthy.
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First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: This pandemic has not been easy on anyone. My mother recently passed away. Losing a parent is difficult in the best of circumstances, and the stress, worry, and lack of access to loved ones during COVID-19 has made her passing harder for our family.
I serve as the CEO of Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center that provides care to over 27,000 people in need in the greater Los Angeles area. I am inspired by the selfless sacrifice and hard work performed by healthcare professionals, staff, and volunteers at the Clinic every single day, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are beacons of hope and perseverance in a difficult time.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Venice Family Clinic.
Elizabeth Benson Forer: I joined Venice Family Clinic in 1994 when it served 10,000 patients annually at one location. Since then, we have nearly tripled the number of patients for whom we provide primary care, and we have expanded to 14 sites. This past October, we celebrated the Clinic’s 50th anniversary as a leader in healthcare, a pioneer in innovations that improve lives, and an effective advocate for equal access to healthcare for all. We have been able to accomplish all this because of our team of dedicated healthcare professionals and volunteers who serve and strengthen the community.
How does Venice Family Clinic innovate?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: Venice Family Clinic prides itself on implementing innovations that improve people’s lives in L.A. – especially society’s most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our street medicine program was an important innovation in Los Angeles. We began sending health care providers into the community in the 1980s to provide primary care to people experiencing homelessness. Since then, we have expanded to nine street medicine teams that partner with homelessness outreach organizations, including The People Concern and St. Joseph Center, to help secure housing and other needed services for our unsheltered neighbors.
Our latest innovation is a specially equipped Mobile Clinic Van that provides a doctor’s office on wheels to improve the care we provide to families and individuals experiencing homelessness or at risk of losing their homes. This mobile clinic allows our doctors to treat a wider range of medical needs immediately in the field, saving some patients a visit to the Clinic while providing them with the safety and dignity of meeting privately.
The Clinic also partnered with the RAND Corporation to develop the model for providing substance use treatment in a primary care setting that has been adopted by community health centers around the nation. We pioneered the use of tele-dentistry in Los Angeles to better serve pediatric patients at schools and daycare centers. And we lead the way in integrating mental health with primary care to provide same-day counseling at the Clinic.
We are always looking to partner and expand our services to better serve patients, starting in 1978 when we signed our affiliation agreement with UCLA and continuing through today with our street medicine partnerships. In fact, we just announced a merger, pending regulatory approvals, with South Bay Family Health Care, a long-time collaborator and fellow nonprofit health center, to help provide more comprehensive care to patients by unifying and expanding our vital services.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: Since COVID-19 began, Venice Family Clinic and all the nation’s community health centers have been on the front lines of the fight – working to preserve overall community health by directly providing care to society’s most vulnerable. Nationally, community health centers provide care to 1 in 11 people across the U.S.
At Venice Family Clinic, 64% of our patients live below the poverty line, 16% are homeless, and 55% are Latinx. With significantly higher COVID-19 diagnoses and mortality rates for these communities and a mortality rate three times higher among people living in areas with high poverty levels, Venice Family Clinic has never been a more important community resource.
From increasing our telehealth services and capacity to enhancing our street outreach program with a Mobile Clinic Van, our physicians and health care providers have stepped up in the face of a global pandemic to deliver quality primary health care to people in need.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: To further ensure our patients’ and staff’s safety during COVID-19, we transitioned to telehealth at the start of the pandemic. We were able to do this relatively quickly because we had already been using it in some of our existing programs.
We started with phone calls, which is what we had used in the past, and then added OTTO Health, a telehealth communication platform that allows health care providers to meet with their patients virtually using any desktop or mobile device.
We had foreseen telehealth as part of our future because of the positive impact we knew it would have on our patients, who often struggle to get to the Clinic sites for routine appointments. Many of them lack transportation to easily travel to a Clinic site. They may, for instance, have to take several buses or rely on friends and family to get here. Or they may have jobs that do not provide paid sick leave, which means they will lose income to take off work to visit the doctor. For these patients, telehealth provides easier access to health care and counseling services.
Our counseling team reports fewer canceled appointments and a reduction in stress for patients, many of whom are in very stressful situations.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: The COVID-19 outbreak opened the door for telehealth, and we must keep it open. Telehealth – and particularly visits by phone – are essential to ensuring equitable access to health care.
As long as the pandemic continues to be designated as a national emergency, telehealth is fully reimbursable by Medi-Cal and other insurance providers. California’s legislators are currently debating what will happen for Medi-Cal after the pandemic is under control – including which components of telehealth the state will continue to pay for. Nearly all of Venice Family Clinic’s patients, even those experiencing homelessness, have access to a telephone, but many patients lack the high-speed internet or data plans needed for live video visits. We will continue to advocate for all forms of telehealth, especially phone visits, to be fully reimbursable – so that our patients will have equitable access to the care they need to stay healthy.
Your final thoughts?
Elizabeth Benson Forer: Venice Family Clinic is a pioneer and catalyst for creating healthier families, empowering thriving communities, and increasing access to care and necessary resources families and patients need to fulfill their potential – regardless of immigration status, insurance, or ability to pay. We offer primary and specialty care, behavioral health services, dental care, vision care, and more – often all in one visit.
The important role community health centers, like Venice Family Clinic, play in our nation’s health has become even more apparent in the pandemic. As COVID-19 has shown us, providing quality primary care to people in need not only ensures they are healthier: It protects the health of us all.