Health center draws flak from patients

More than a year ago, a Valley woman went to the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center after finding a lump in her breast. She was referred for a mammogram, and told she’d have to pay for the test as she lacked health insurance. Not being able to afford the procedure, she saved her money for months until she was finally able to pay for it.

“The bad news is, now it’s breast cancer. If they had caught it earlier, it might not have been so bad,” said the woman’s daughter, who added that the family was irritated to learn her mother could have gotten a free mammogram, something they said the health center should have immediately disclosed.

“Only afterwards they told her she qualified for a free mammogram. That is not right,” said the daughter, whose identity, like many sources in this article, is being withheld to protect medical privacy.

It was one of a dozen testimonials – reported by Springs residents through a translator – citing insufficient treatment at the health center and aired Wednesday night during a private meeting hosted by the Todd Trust and Community Foundation Sonoma County to learn more about how Sonoma’s Latino community perceives the clinic.

“The simple question was, ‘What’s going on in your community?’ The principal answer was, ‘The clinic, the clinic, the clinic,’” said Davin Cardenas, an organizer with the Community Foundation, who moderated the meeting of around two dozen Valley residents. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Cardenas is working with the volunteer Todd Trust board to better understand the needs and concerns of the community in Boyes Hot Springs. The Todd Trust – which represents the $8.5 million estate left by Valley residents Roland and Hazel Todd – is meticulously vetting various community organizations to determine the best use of those funds to affect significant change, specifically when it comes to health and human services for low-income, minority residents in the Springs. The trust also seeks to develop leaders within the Latino community who will take an active role in deciding how the money is spent. As the Todd Trust team began reaching out in the Springs – particularly to the English Learner Advisory Councils that bring together Spanish-speaking parents at each Valley school – they consistently heard stories of mistreatment and misdiagnosis at the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center.

“They don’t treat people well,” said one woman, who shared that she went to the clinic with breathing difficulties and chest pains. “They gave me no medicine and then it turned into pneumonia and I had to go to the hospital.”

Another woman said her mother sought treatment at the health center after experiencing intense eye pain. “They told her it was nothing,” she said. “A few months later her eye started bleeding, she couldn’t work.” Her mother then went to the Point Reyes Community Health Center where, her daughter said, she received significantly better care. Other audience members agreed.

“They have much better service,” said another woman of the Marin County facility, explaining that after the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center dismissed her mother’s ailments, she sought treatment in Point Reyes where doctors immediately schedule surgery to remove her thyroid.

“They (the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center) are holding the Latino population hostage. We don’t know how to complain,” said one man. “Someone who works in the field … or doesn’t drive, won’t know to go to Point Reyes for services.”

Others spoke of experiences with rude and dismissive staff at the health center, some of whom were alleged to play favorites and make scheduling appointments unnecessarily complicated, the patients said. “It’s basically, if I like you, I’ll help you and if not, I’ll put you to the side,” said one woman. “A lot of people have trouble scheduling appointments.”

Six representatives of the health center, including CEO Cheryl Johnson, attended Wednesday’s meeting. Although Cardenas said it was not the venue for the health center to respond to the concerns, audience members asked that someone from the center speak to the issues presented.

“We recognize we need to improve what we’re doing … We need to know how we can make your visits to us work for you,” Johnson said, adding that she was more interested in listening to the complaints, which will be addressed during a joint meeting with the health center on Feb. 20. “That is the reason we’re here, to observe and not to speak.”

Cardenas said during the Feb. 20 meeting, stakeholders would present their concerns and potential resolutions, and allow the health center to respond. He will host a meeting on Feb. 18 with Springs residents to create a list of demands and suggested solutions (to attend, email Cardenas at davin_cardenas@yahoo.com or call 318-2818). “We’re not going to ask for demands that can’t be met,” he said, explaining certain complaints, like difficulty scheduling appointments, stem from high patient volumes that can’t necessarily be helped. “The best solutions are when we all know each other and understand the situation” from both sides, he said.

The widespread patient dissatisfaction came to light at a precarious time for the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center. After receiving a $5 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration last year, the center is waist-deep in planning a $9.1 million project to relocate services to a bigger facility in Boyes Hot Springs. Under a requirement of the grant, the new center must be open to patients by April 30, 2015, meaning the clock is ticking on the time the center has to bridge the $4.1 million gap.

The Todd Trust would be a natural source from which the health center could seek financial support, as its funds are meant to improve services for the low-income residents of the Springs. Todd Trust officials said by empowering residents to address their concerns with the health center, they hope to improve health services for the Valley’s low-income residents.

“You’re looking at the health of your family, it’s very important,” Cardenas said. “Here, we’re looking for steps we can take together.”

When asked what would happen to the $5 million grant if the health center is unable to raise the needed $9.1 million, HRSA spokesman Martin Kramer responded, “HRSA evaluates such circumstances on a case-by-case basis, and has previously provided no-cost extensions for grantees that are unable to complete projects within the initial project period due to unforeseen circumstances.”

He said to date, no projects that received similar grants have lost funding from failing to meet grant requirements.