Cynthia Solomon was the office administrator for a Sonoma OB/GYN practice, which provided a program for low-income, Hispanic mothers during the early 1990s. When it closed, those women faced a gaping hole in health services. Traveling to neighboring cities was burdensome and the other doctor in town didn’t take Medi-Cal patients. Solomon received late night phone calls at home from women desperately looking for care.
“It was very frustrating,” Solomon says, “so Heidi [Stovall] and I put our heads together, did some research and found the concept of a community health center.” The two were working together in Solomon’s consulting agency, Medical Management Resources, helping private practices with their office systems.
Stanley Roualdes helped Solomon and Stovall them form a non-profit organization, to help fulfill the community’s unmet healthcare needs. They held focus groups at the library and created a Board of Directors with Suzanna Kemp, Eliza Meyn, Daphne Matthews and Viola Voris. Local pediatrician, Judith Bjorndahl, M.D. would be the first medical director at the clinic. They brought in enthusiastic community members, pharmacies, doctors stymied by the system, and the Rotary club, which contributed funding for equipment.
The Sonoma Valley Community Health Center (SVCHC) was becoming a reality.
“The most amazing thing, though, was our site,” said Solomon. “After looking at options for more than four months, and not finding anything that would work for our facility, Dale Wheeler overheard us complaining and said, ‘I’ll build you a building. You pay the first month’s rent, and I’ll build you a clinic.’ And he did!” SVCHC opened on his West Napa Street property in 1992.
“It was an extremely exciting time. Everybody took on a role. The community was very involved in finding solutions to whatever the issues were,” said Solomon. “I tie it back to what’s happening now. It’s wonderful to see what’s coming about.” She is referring to SVCHC’s new facility at 19270 Sonoma Highway and the current changes in health care the nation is facing with the Affordable Care Act.
At that time, the state was actively engaged with the center because of the plan to role the Medicaid population into a managed care plan to reduce health care costs. SVCHC was the first health center built and licensed in California in more than 20 years.
“When the state and county health care officials heard what SVCHC was doing, they’d bring their entourage to Sonoma to model all of the different aspects of what the facility was going to be, the services they’d provide, how it was being built and the fact that it was intended for the whole community,” said Stovall. “In the past, health centers had the label of being a free clinic for low-income patients.”
The SVCHC model was one based on educating, empowering and engaging patients. The clinic offered extended and Saturday hours. It had a teen clinic and a classroom, where staff could educate patients. It started an OB program with courses on pregnancy nutrition, newborn care and parenting, and, with half the staff bilingual, they had the ability to communicate and work with them in the language they needed.
Before the clinic opened, they held a six-month job-training program for front and back office medical assistants. At its conclusion, they hired the best people for their clinic.
“When SVCHC opened its doors, everything was brand new. No one who worked there had ever worked in a clinic before, including the doctors, because they were fresh from their residencies. The nurse practitioners were just out of school. Even the building that Dale Wheeler built for us was brand new. We had never run a clinic, because nobody had licensed a clinic. We learned it from the ground up. It was a wonderful family,” said Solomon.
Their first staff doctor was Cuban immigrant, Dr. Julio Porro, a doctor fresh out of the residency program in Santa Rosa. Over the years, they had several Hispanic residents from that program rotate through SVCHC. It was a win-win situation, training and educating doctors who were going into primary care about community medicine, while providing additional health services to the community.
Solomon and Stovall have worked together as health care advocates, and friends, for more that twenty-five years. “After the clinic opened, our work exploded,” said Stovall, “and we started working with the county and the state.” The county hired them to create a Medicaid managed care plan. They had referrals from cities all over the state to help open clinics, including Petaluma, Vallejo, Roseland and Cloverdale. Stovall became an expert on the clinic application process.
One year ago Susan Drake, Chair of the current SVCHC Board of Directors, contacted Solomon about serving on a SVCHC committee.
“I have been communicating with Susan Drake as much as I can and had hoped to participate more on the committees, but a recurrence of ovarian cancer has limited my energy and ability,” said Solomon. She would, however, like to sit on fundraising and ideas committees.
“They are an amazing group of people and I love the energy and what they’re doing. Heidi and I will do whatever we can to support them through our contacts, with grants, whatever way we can help, we want to do so,” said Solomon. “We planted the seed and they’re growing this beautiful flower.”
“Oh the possibilities!” Stovall said. “I can’t wait to call everybody at the state and let them know what’s happening. It’s good timing because of the new healthcare initiative, the lack of doctors, the increase in population and increased number of insured. The new location will allow them to serve more patients faster.”
“It’s a great next step for the health center, and the board has done a wonderful job in bringing the new building, the funding and everything into fruition. Even through growing pains and limited space they have stayed to the vision of community health for all,” said Solomon. “We’ve always thought of SVCHC as an ideal of what a clinic should and could be. It’s like watching your child grow up and graduate with honors.”