Popular community health care clinic closes

La Clinica employees
Bibiana Garzon tells Maria Arboleda about the patients waiting in examining rooms for their appointments at La Clinica en Lake.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Raquel Rosales has been coming to La Clinica en Lake since her pregnancy. She brings her 7-month-old daughter for checkups on a regular basis. Rosales says she's worried about finding a new clinic that will be bilingual. Her experience at other places wasn't great.

Raquel Rosales
Raquel Rosales waits for a doctor to see her baby. She's been coming to La Clinica all through her pregnancy.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"I've gone to other clinics and sadly, I don't understand English perfectly," says Rosales. "But at this clinic, I can get all of the information I need. I want to be able to understand what doctors tell me about my health and my children's health."

Rosales is uninsured. In fact, 79 percent of the patients served at La Clinica en Lake don't have health insurance. A St. Paul organization, West Side Community Health Services, runs the clinic. The Lake Street clinic is its only facility in Minneapolis. And it also has the highest rate of uninsured patients out of all of the sites. That's one of the main reasons why the clinic is closing.

Carlos Figari, a doctor at La Clinica en Lake since it opened in 2001, says the clinic has established a strong relationship with its patients. More and more patients are coming every year, but too many are uninsured.

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"We thought initially that we would have a population of Latinos with health insurance, and that would help us maintain the operations of this clinic," says Figari. "But the number of insured patients have not been enough to survive. We have an increasing number of people without health insurance, and that's continued to increase our stresses and needs."

Dr.  Carlos  Figari
Dr. Carlos Figari examines a patient's hand at Minneapolis' La Clinica en Lake.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

About half the clinic's money comes from the state. But both state and federal money hasn't been enough to offset the cost of uninsured patients. The bar has been set higher for the state's low income health insurance program, so fewer poor people are able to pay for their own insurance.

All of this is pushing West Side Community Health Services to refocus its limited resources on its St. Paul sites.

Figari says patients haven't been taking the news very well. He's still taken aback by the decision.

"Patients were in disbelief. They asked, 'How could you close? There are so many patients coming to see you daily with illnesses and diseases. How can you just be shutting the door?'" says Figari. "They cannot understand that, really. I, myself, cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this."

Staff members at the clinic are giving patients a list of community clinics in the area. But Figari fears patients won't trust a new clinic. He says they'll wait until they're really sick and end up in the emergency room. Figari stresses ER visits are far more costly to society.

Patients can also continue their health care at La Clinica in St. Paul, but it's a long commute. It could take up to an hour and a half and three buses to get there from Minneapolis. Ivonne Franco says she definitely won't be able to commute to St. Paul.

Mavis Brehm
Mavis Brehm is the executive director of West Side Community Health Services. She says closing the Lake Street clinic was a hard decision to make.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"I just found out the clinic is closing in July and I'm really worried," says Franco. "I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?' Transportation is a really big issue."

Franco, 16, is five months pregnant. Her health insurance will expire when her baby is born.

Franco says services at La Clinica go beyond health care. Her doctor encourages her to stay in school, and employees help her fill out applications that are in English. They also give her information on where she can get food for her family. She's still trying to figure out where she'll go next.

Mavis Brehm, executive director of West Side Community Health Services, says there are community clinics in Minneapolis serving a large number of immigrants. Brehm hopes most of the Lake street patients will look to those clinics to find their doctors.

"Although none of them have been set up specifically in terms of a high percentage of bilingual, bicultural environment, I know that they are all eager and ready to do whatever they can," says Brehm.

Many hope a new clinic will move into the Lake Street site to continue specifically serving Spanish-speaking immigrants. But it's unclear whether that will happen.