“Location, location, location.”
A real estate tycoon might typically utter that phrase, but this time it was Margaret Martinez, CEO of Community Health Alliance of Pasadena, or ChapCare, on the opening of its new, cutting-edge health-care facility in the heart of northwest Pasadena.
Bringing health care to the neighborhoods, close to the residents who need it most, is just one more piece in ChapCare’s longstanding mission to remove barriers that stop low-income Pasadenans from putting their health first. The puzzle finally feels as if it’s coming together in Pasadena, Martinez noted.
“The need cannot be overstated — this will help us provide exactly what our population needs and deserves, which is state-of-the-art health-care delivery. Everyone deserves to receive health services in a dignified manner,” said Martinez, who has helmed the nonprofit since 1999.
Martinez unveiled the new clinic, located at 1595 N. Lake Ave., on Monday, christening it the Kathryn Barger Health Center, after the Los Angeles County supervisor who has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to supporting health-care access for all in the Greater Pasadena area. The sparkling new facility replaces the nearby ChapCare Lake Health Center, which was in need of significant repairs and offered only five medical exam rooms, a space much too small to meet the neighborhood demand.
“The new site allows us to increase patient capacity, which is always important, and in addition, this integrated medical and behavioral health services under one roof will prove critical,” Martinez said. “At this location, we expect to serve the general community as well as the homeless population. In both cases, one’s ability to manage their behavioral health conditions can have a serious impact on their ability to maintain their overall treatment plan.”
The 4,500-square-foot health center boasts 13 medical exam rooms and four behavioral health counseling rooms and is able to serve 3,800 unduplicated patients.
Its opening marks years of an organized, grass-roots community effort to provide health care to some of the city’s most vulnerable: lower-income, uninsured and underinsured residents.
“You can’t help but understand the need to help the most vulnerable population in this county unless you’ve sat at that desk and seen the faces and the lives that are impacted by the services that you provide,” Barger said. “What we’re seeing today is a testament to the hope I have for not only Pasadena, but all of L.A. County. As we look at what’s going on with the homeless population, I’m not going to promise that I can solve homelessness, because I’d be a fool to say that, but what I can tell you is that we’re going to make a difference for each person that walks through that door, whether it’s because of substance-abuse addiction, mental health or just having fallen upon hard times.”
Barger was one of ChapCare’s early board members during the organization’s humble beginnings, back when the city of Pasadena was trying to answer the unmet need through its own health department, offering even prenatal services out of City Hall. (“If you can imagine what that looked like!” Martinez recalled.)
Martinez and her ChapCare administration planned the name dedication as a surprise to the supervisor, who was visibly overwhelmed at the ceremony.
“I do this because I genuinely want to give back to the community. I am so humbled to see my picture in the lobby,” Barger said, after tearing up at the reveal. “I was a little taken aback, and I don’t get emotional and I’m usually not speechless, but I was both. I do this because I truly believe it’s the right thing to do … being a public servant and giving back to your community.”
City officials gathered to celebrate the clinic and the success of an organized advocacy, begun in the mid-1990s by residents, city officials and health-care agencies, to stress the urgent need across the city, and especially in the poverty-stricken northwest corridor. At that time, emergency rooms and critical care centers across the country were in crisis, over capacity and under financial strain, if not closing outright.
“It really does feel a bit like we’ve come full circle from those early grass-roots days, back when they really were just trying to address some of these access problems and pressure points [in emergency centers],” said Martinez, sitting down recently to discuss the nonprofit’s growth. “Back then, this population, which had some issues with gangs and rampant poverty, it was still a community of people coexisting, working in the service sector, wanting and trying for a better life. And part of that better life is access to health care.”
Founded in 1995, ChapCare began providing medical services in 1998 and dental services in 2001. Today, it is a network of community health centers drawing on a mix of private and public funds, that provides comprehensive services to some 16,500 patients across the San Gabriel Valley. ChapCare operates four health centers in Pasadena, another three in El Monte/South El Monte and one in Monrovia, offering some 58,800 medical visits, 13,169 dental visits and 4,700 behavioral health visits.
Martinez recalled the early days of trying to convince officials that health care meant “preventive” health care, in all its forms, and had to include optometry, dental and behavioral medicine. Over time, they’ve expanded that to substance-abuse care and health education outreach.
“What we were seeing in this population, with people who didn’t have access to health care, was that they didn’t realize they had some chronic diseases that were going untreated, like diabetes and hypertension, and what happens with an untreated chronic illness? You end up in the emergency room,” she said.
ChapCare’s first patient at its first dental clinic ended up representing a sad case of too little, too late, she recalled.
“With the first patient we saw, our dentist looked in his mouth and saw he had a lot of lesions; he was pretty sure it was oral cancer,” she said grimly. “The patient was immediately sent [for urgent care]. So you tell me that this population doesn’t need basic access to basic care. These are the kinds of things that go unchecked if you don’t have that basic access to health care.”
Martinez has spent a career fighting for that access. She holds a master’s in public health from UC Berkeley, and her goal was always to run a health-care clinic. Little known to her at the time, of course, was that navigating the health-care field would also require expert knowledge in low-cost housing to help provide care for the burgeoning homeless population. The homeless represent about 7% of ChapCare’s patients, but have proved to be some of the most challenging.
ChapCare provides weekly visits to Pasadena’s Union Station homeless shelter. While providing care has improved immensely after the adoption of digital records, she noted (while adding that it is an incredibly costly move), the dual diagnoses of many patients require multiple layers of wraparound services.
“Who knew that health care was going to mean getting people into housing?” she wryly said. “But we have to get people into housing so they can get their insulin refrigerated. We have to anticipate how we can remove all these barriers so they can take care of their health.”
Another barrier: transportation. ChapCare developed a partnership with Lyft and is able to “prescribe” a ride for patients who might not make an appointment due to a lack of transportation. The nonprofit is also able to offer on-site laboratory services, after its leaders realized sending patients to another facility to have blood or urine tested was a lost cause. It could mean one more lost day of income, she noted, recognizing it as yet another barrier to getting a diagnosis.
“How can we get this patient the help they need? How do we get the outcomes we want?” asked Martinez. “We have to innovate. We have to constantly look at how to get the needle to move to improve those outcomes. These patients are complex, and you have to be able to meet them where they are and according to their individual needs.”
That determination and spirit have led ChapCare to where it is now, Barger observed.
“Margie’s vision goes so far beyond the status quo,” Barger said. “She is amazing. I recognized she had the vision moving forward because this was something that many didn’t think could happen as it relates to opening a health clinic in Pasadena.”
City Councilman Tyron Hampton also praised ChapCare for its innovative partnerships, and above all, for its locations.
“ChapCare has been a fantastic partner to this community, especially in putting health-care facilities where they’re most needed, in the neighborhoods where families are, close to high schools where families attend, where people don’t typically think of getting health services,” Hampton said. “ChapCare has been extremely important with their outreach, encouraging people to come, reminding them that their health is the most important thing, and that if you’re not taking care of your health, you can’t take care of anybody else.”
To learn more about ChapCare, its services or how to donate, visit chapcare.org.