By Donna Europa / South Kern Sol
BAKERSFIELD – When she needs medical attention, Mariela Vega, 18, goes to her local community clinic, Clinica Sierra Vista, in Lamont. Her visits, however, are rarely brief. An hour and a half wait, said Vega, is not uncommon at the clinic, even when she has a scheduled appointment. Without one, Vega can expect to spend most of her day waiting to be seen by a doctor.
Now, the wait times for Vega and other community clinic users are likely about to get longer.
With the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act in January 2014, many South Kern County health clinics are anticipating overcrowding due to an influx of newly enrolled patients who will be seeking immediate care.
The expected wave of new patients will compound an overcrowding problem that experts here believe is partially a result of how the current healthcare system operates.
“We have a system of care in this country that is based on sickness and not on wellness. People access care when they need it,” explained Stephen Schilling, CEO of Clinica Sierra Vista in South Kern County.
One of the objectives of the Affordable Care Act is to encourage people to see their doctor more frequently for preventive care to avoid becoming ill, which, in theory, would result in less reliance on community clinics for urgent care services.
However, it’s Schilling’s belief that “it may take 5 to 10 years to change how people use their insurance.”
In the meantime, Schilling says the clinic will be doing its part to build capacity through the Affordable Care Act to meet the needs of the Central Valley’s newly insured, but it won’t happen overnight.
“Right now, we are working on adding 30 new clinics in the surrounding areas, one being in Greenfield. In August, four new health centers will be added in Fresno. We are trying to build access points as fast as we can,” he said.
Vega suggested that although the ACA has good intentions, it might initially result in the opposite of what it intends to accomplish – get more people seen by doctors. Patients like her, said Vega, may try to avoid going to see a doctor completely, if the health clinics become too overcrowded. In communities like Lamont in South Kern County, where most people can’t afford to miss a day’s pay, she said, putting food on the table might outweigh the need to spend a day at the community clinic.
Fernanda Rivera, also a patient of the Lamont clinic said, “On average, I have waited 10 to 30 minutes after my appointment time to see a doctor.” Rivera continued by saying “I have never had a walk in experience, but if it is a long wait I may try to find another clinic.”
Mike Valdez, who goes to Clinica Sierra Vista in Arvin, said he usually doesn’t “have to wait very long for an appointment, but it was 30 minutes today.”
Another patient in Lamont, Maria Juarez, has resigned herself to the fact that if the wait times get longer, she will just have to put up with it. “There is no other option,” said Juarez.
For now, the community members and the clinics themselves will just have to wait and hope that the Affordable Care Act’s good intentions become a reality, sooner rather than later.
“It’s going to be bumpy,” said Schilling. “It’s going to be rocky in the beginning.”