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From Canyon To Cove: Making Laguna Beach a healthy place

November 25, 2010|By Cindy Frazier

It was 1970 and flower children were congregating in Laguna Beach, seeking free love and LSD. The inevitable results of all that partying and mind-expanding were taking a toll on the minds and bodies of the young — and on the resources of a small community.

In response, a group of civic-minded volunteer physicians got together and founded the Laguna Beach Free Clinic, one of a larger movement of free clinics around the country that sprang up to serve a huge, unmet need. The first Free Clinic opened up at Glenneyre Street and Park Avenue, according to Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Tom Bent, who has been with the clinic since he was a volunteer doctor in the early 1980s while he was completing medical school.

The clinic eventually moved to Ocean Avenue where Anastasia's restaurant is now, before relocating to its current address, 362 Third St.

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"There were a lot of artists and hippies, and in 1970 a lot of people didn't have health insurance," he said. The clinic was officially licensed in 1985.

Forty years later, the Laguna Beach Community Clinic carries on the tradition of responding to the needs of an ever-evolving population of underserved or unserved people, including immigrants, very low-income people and the uninsured, whose ranks have swelled as the economy has taken a nosedive over the past few years.

In the interim, the city became "ground zero" in the AIDS epidemic, with the highest per capita rate of HIV infection in the nation. This created an enormous challenge in medicine, to which the Laguna clinic responded in full force with resources and pioneering early-intervention treatment of HIV infection under the eye of Dr. Korey Jorgensen, a renowned AIDS physician.

"We were at the head of the epidemic," Bent said. "Up until the past two years, Laguna Beach had the highest incidence of AIDS in the country." That "honor" now goes to Miami-Dade County, Florida, which has knocked Laguna Beach to number two.

Bent says there are 150 men and women now being treated for AIDS at the clinic, which pioneered an early-intervention program for those who test positive for HIV. Many of these patients are treated at no cost under grants from the federal Ryan White program, but those funds are now in jeopardy, as the county has announced it may reduce the clinic's funding allotment, he said.

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