The demand for the free health care provided by the small clinic overwhelms the phone system every Monday at 2 p.m., when the available appointments for the week are up for grabs on a first-come, first-serve basis. The clinic has stopped keeping track of how many are not served, but the demand shows no signs of letting up.
About 50 patients are seen every day in seven exam rooms at the clinic. Over 100 doctors have agreed to volunteer once a month for four hours, and even more volunteer as nurses. RotaCare is one of seven organizations that help local residents supported by contributions to the Voice Holiday Fund this year.
"If you've got to pay insurance, it's tough," said Andres, whose wife Patricia was being seen for a rash on her hand. Their 3-year-old son's health care is covered by a government program, but with no insurance offered by their employers, his parents face the prospect of expensive hospital visits or unaffordable health insurance payments.
Andres admits that getting an appointment is a bit like winning the lottery. But even for those who manage to press redial enough times to get in line on the 25-slot phone queue to schedule an appointment, access to care is often limited by the specialties of volunteer doctors and nurses, and by supplies.
There is a huge demand for care by diabetics and those with high blood pressure, but the clinic's volunteer nutritionist can't serve all the diabetics who need advice, and the clinic's "Heart to Health" program, which was showing "tremendous success" in treating women with high blood pressure by supplying free blood pressure monitors, ran out of the monitors last month.
The original program was intended for women, but it turned out that the reach of "Heart to Health" is extending much further.
"They almost become advocates who are able to help others manage their own health situations," said clinical coordinator Mirella Nguyen. "Once somebody's blood pressure was well managed, they wanted to transfer the machine to a friend or family member to use. Most of our patients probably would not run out and buy (the $75 monitor)," she said.
Like many social safety net programs, more and more middle class patients are using the clinic, people who first tried to pay out-of-pocket for the high cost of health care after losing their jobs. Some feel ashamed, and they often stand out because they feel a need to explain why they need access to the clinic, said Nidia Farruguia, the office administrator.
According to the RotaCare, "Health insurance premiums for California working families increased by 109.2 percent in the last 10 years. In the same time period, California workers' wages rose 25.5 percent."
The clinic is operated in the basement of a building on the El Camino Hospital campus, donated by the hospital, along with "anything connected to the wall." Rotary clubs offer support with donations and by collecting donated food from restaurants for the volunteers every night. The cost of medications has been a huge expense, but new programs offered by Walmart and Target which allow patients to receive generic medicines for $4 a month have reduced that need, Farruguia said.
As a recipient of the Voice's Holiday Fund, Mirella said RotaCare would use contributions to buy blood pressure monitors and blood sugar monitors for patients to take home, and provide flu vaccines for those who are unable to get them free elsewhere.
The clinic is also seeking volunteers, particularly nutritionists and social workers, who can help patients navigate the various government health care programs available.