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Benjamin Epstein

South County Clinic Trims Staff to Save

May 20, 1986|Benjamin Epstein

While other organizations are crying out for more volunteers, the South County Community Clinic has let go 28 of its staff, all physicians who have been donating their services.

"They cost too much," said Bill Gil, executive director of the clinic, which held its fourth annual dinner-dance and auction attended by 450 at the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach Friday night.

The problem is medical malpractice coverage: According to Gil, there are only two insurance companies covering community clinics in California, and, he said, "neither would cover us."

"Right now there is a prejudice . . . among many insurance companies that low-income people tend to be malpractice-happy," he said. "My own research showed that only three community clinics (in the nation) have ever been sued for malpractice.

"We found an alternate means of getting coverage through a company organized by doctors, but that coverage is based on a miminum of 20 hours of work per week. Our physicians donate one or two half days a month. Even at the minimum rate, we were being asked to pay the premiums of the equivalent of 14 full-time physicians.

"Faced with that, we hired one half-time physician. Oddly enough, it is cheaper for us to hire a physician and pay him a salary and pay his malpractice than to provide coverage for all our volunteers.

"We asked the volunteers to take a sabbatical."

The answer might lie in the clinic's newly restructured board of directors; what began as a grass-roots effort, Gil said, has been transformed into a 31-member board with "a bit more punch, both politically and in the business sense." He hopes its clout will help get elected officials and insurance companies to listen.

Chairman of the board is Arthur Birtcher, general partner of the real estate investment and development firm that bears his name. Also on the board is Birtcher's daughter, Wendy, 23, an assistant vice president for the firm and a member of the fourth of five generations of the county's Birtcher family. Dinner auction chairman was the clinic's auxiliary president, Birtcher's wife, Gaye.

The clinic and the Birtcher ranch are in San Juan Capistrano.

Medical Poverty Line

"The south county area has always been the last to grow," Arthur Birtcher noted. "People don't seem to understand that in the area from San Clemente to El Toro, 23% of the population is below the medical poverty line," which is an income of $1,100 or less a month, according to a report done by county Supervisor Thomas F. Riley's office.

"The clerks at the five-and-dimes, the waitresses, they go without. Their children go without," Birtcher added.

According to its literature, the nonprofit clinic provides medical and psychological care to the needy as well as dental services by referral, social services and emergency food.

Gaye Birtcher was ecstatic at evening's end. "In our wildest expectations," she said, "we planned to make $30,000. We made $63,000."

Former L.A. Rams star Jack Youngblood came with his friends Dottie and Bobby Atkins, whose limousine company serves the Birtcher family and, during the season, the Rams. "Jackson," as Bobby calls him, donated an autographed football jersey for the auction.

Practical Side Gifts

Other interesting items included a 9-week-old Shih Tzu puppy and all the trimmings: a week at Park-A-Pet, health insurance, a vaccine series, $50 worth of puppy food, two groomings and a two-month supply of newspapers. Those newspapers will line the floors of successful bidder Dolores Frost of San Juan Capistrano. A red '86 Nissan 300ZX was secured by Robert Spanjian of Carlsbad; he also nabbed a fur coat. Wade Stringham of Orange was the auctioneer.

Dody Biebelberg, a member of the auxiliary board, arrived in a wheelchair; she wove an elaborate tale of woe.

"I was on a safari, see, and I got in this hot air balloon. . . . "

The true story showed just how dangerous volunteerism can be.

"I was delivering tickets (for the dinner) over to the Birtchers," Biebelberg explained. "I walked down the hall and the secretary said, 'Come right this way.' I took another step and broke my foot in four places.

"I'll never do a good deed again," she joked.

Margo Nagel wore the dress she bought at the Nordstrom gala opening dinner the week before. "Do you like it?" she asked. Arthur Birtcher's parents, F. E. (Fayette) and Mary Louise Birtcher, were there, as was a new board member, ad man Jeff Zigner, son of Gloria of public relations fame. "I hope to be instrumental in changing the clinic's image," Zigner said.

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