Clinic Finds a New Ally in AIDS Fight

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By Donna Furey | LB Indy

Clinic supporters Susan Neely and Brian Sadler are working to match a challenge grant to serve the medical needs of AIDS patients.
Clinic supporters Susan Neely and Brian Sadler are working to match a challenge grant to serve the medical needs of AIDS patients.

As the Laguna Beach Community Clinic prepared to offer free testing during an annual World AIDS Day promotion this past Monday, Dec. 1, they received a welcome windfall in its unending quest for resources to treat AIDS patients.

Longtime board member Susan Neely announced a $10,000 matching grant for the clinic from the John D. Evans Foundation, of Jacksonville, Fla.

Neely, a local realtor, and Brian Sadler, chair of the city’s HIV/AIDS Advisory Committee, want to spread the word about the clinic’s work in treating patients living with HIV/AIDS. The clinic’s signature early intervention program has received local and national commendations and support.

In speaking to organizations, neighbors and community leaders, Neely and Sadler ambitiously hope to not only match, but triple donor support for the Evans Foundation grant.

“Laguna is a small town with big connections,” said Neely, who several years ago represented Steven Wozencraft in a real estate transaction. Wozencraft is the executive vice president of the John D. Evans Foundation, established by the co-founder of C-SPAN television network.

Neely maintained a business relationship with Wozencraft after the sale. “When we got to talking it became clear that our program was a perfect fit to their interests,” she added.

“I’ve lived here a long time and I’m proud to see how this community has rallied to champion this issue. We’ve made a lot of progress, but the fight continues,” said Sadler.

Despite the demise of the Boom Boom Room gay nightclub and the emergence of gay friendly havens elsewhere, Laguna maintains a concentration of HIV-AIDS residents. In 1989, the town earned the distinction as the nation’s AIDS capital, with 1.42 new cases per 1,000 people, surpassing the 1.29 rate in San Francisco, according to the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

In 2013, 275 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the county, where 6,215 are coping with the disease, says a report by the Orange County Health Care Agency. Santa Ana has the highest per capita rate of new cases at 20.9, Irvine the lowest at 3.9. Laguna had fewer than five, the report says.

Currently, about 150 HIV/AIDS patients currently receive care at the clinic. Of the clinic’s annual 1,600 patient visits, 56 percent are patients infected with the virus. “These patients not only have a serious health issue, but they also struggle financially. With government funding now stripped from this program, we face tremendous challenges but remain committed to providing the continuity of life-saving and life-enhancing care our patients have come to rely on,” stated the clinic’s Chief Operating Officer and Medical Director Dr. Tom Bent.

In 2013, the clinic’s $2.4 million budget was cut by 10 percent due to the loss of funding from the Ryan White Foundation, which discontinued subsidized services for 127 HIV AIDS patients after 20 years due to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

“We are struggling to fill the funding gap in multiple ways,” said Bent, including deploying staff to assist patients with enrolling in health care plans. Many HIV patients have now obtained medical insurance through MediCal. “The downside is that MediCal pays only a fraction of the actual cost of care,” he said, referring to the clinic’s 30 percent reimbursement rate for MediCal patients.

Two other clinic physicians, Korey Jorgensen and Chau Ngo, are certified through the American Academy of HIV Medicine  providing treatment that keeps patients’ viral levels below the detectible limit, allowing a patient’s immune system to regenerate and help prevent transmission of the infection. “The clinic saved my life and gave me an opportunity to grow old,” said local artist and long-time patient James Koch.

While the reduction in funding for HIV patients is a disappointment, Jorgensen said, the Evans challenge grant serves as an opportunity for the clinic to make a focused appeal. “We are hopeful that this season of gratitude and giving will encourage the citizens of Laguna Beach to reach out to their less fortunate friends and neighbors, especially those living with HIV/AIDS,” Bent added in an email.

The foundation has indicated that if the clinic is able to achieve success with the matching grant, a “substantially larger gift” will be forthcoming next year, Bent said.

To learn more or to make a donation, visit www.lbclinic.org.

Correction appended Dec. 9, 2014:

In the article, “Clinic Finds A New Ally in AIDS Fight,” in the Dec. 5 edition, the clinic’s annual patient census was reported incorrectly as was the number of patient visits for AIDS related treatment. The correct number of annual patient visits to the clinic is 16,000; of those, 5.6 percent are for AIDS treatments.

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