An ear infection is a rare occurrence in the Hidalgo family. When it happens, the Hidalgos usually rub the infected ear with a clove of garlic or a less offensive dab of coconut oil, and it typically clears right up.
But when 12-year-old Faith, the oldest of five, came down with double ear and sinus infections and a side of pinkeye a few weeks ago, the family knew it was time to get professional help. The challenge was finding a nearby provider in rural Placer County who would accept their Medi-Cal insurance, as well as their preference for alternative medicine.
“There’s such a stigma around this belief, that we feel like the oddballs out,” said Gabriel Hidalgo, Faith’s father. “We don’t hate hospitals, but we don’t rush there every time there’s a hangnail.”
The Hidalgos, who recently moved to Meadow Vista from Tennessee, use home remedies in lieu of prescription drugs whenever possible. When they came across Weimar Family Care, a newly opened clinic with a natural bent, they hoped it would be a good fit, said Hidalgo, who accompanied Faith to an appointment last week.
The physicians there put Faith on antibiotics – the first she’s had in her life. It’s been a new experience, but a comfortable one, Hidalgo said.
“They’re really not telling us what to do, but listening to us and consulting with us,” he said. “A lot of times on Medi-Cal, you get left to the last and the least, or you feel that way. Finding someone to take us out here is really big.”
Weimar Family Care launched on March 2 with the goal of providing primary care and lifestyle counseling to the area’s underserved residents, particularly those on Medi-Cal, said Dr. Randall Steffens, co-medical director and co-owner.
The 4,000-square-foot clinic is tucked into the campus of the Weimar Institute, a Seventh-day Adventist organization that runs a spectrum of live-in programs as well as an unaccredited college and high school, all teaching healthy living with minimal use of drugs. The clinic space, formerly a tuberculosis sanitarium, exclusively served staff and residents from the institute’s founding in the 1940s until 2011, when administrators approached Steffens and his colleague Dr. Roger Gallant about the possibility of opening it to the public.
Nearly a quarter-million dollars and several layers of paint later, the clinic is open and taking new patients. The facility is equipped with a full lab, pharmacy, and six exam and procedure rooms. Members of the wider Weimar community, located between Auburn and Colfax, can make appointments or walk in with urgent care needs any day but Saturday, the Seventh-day Sabbath.
The clinic’s 10-person staff can treat 90 percent of issues a patient would have treated in an emergency department, said Steffens. While physicians on staff don’t hesitate to use modern medicine when needed, the goal is to eventually get a patient off of medication by improving his or her diet, lifestyle and sleep patterns over time.
Steffens said when treating chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, he tries to improve the patient’s diet and increase physical activity before prescribing medications, unless deemed medically necessary.
“Our denomination has emphasized health,” he said. “That’s one of the things that we try to do ourselves, and try to bless others with. You don’t have to be Adventist to live healthy. Anyone who lives the culture of longevity can experience the benefits of longevity.”
Weimar Family Care is seeking federal designation as a Rural Health Clinic – a provider that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to care for rural populations. If approved, the clinic will be financially equipped to accept patients on Medi-Cal as well as uninsured patients, including undocumented immigrants.
That’s particularly important right now, with many physicians turning Medi-Cal patients away due to low reimbursement rates and more people enrolling due to expanded eligibility under the federal health care overhaul, Steffens said.
The provider shortage is even more dire in rural areas, said Gail Nickerson of the California Association of Rural Health Clinics, because doctors prefer to stay in urban centers where they can recruit more patients.
Rural areas also tend to be home to older and poorer populations who move away from the city seeking privacy and cheaper housing. In a place as isolated as Weimar, people may avoid going to the doctor due to cost or transportation issues, Nickerson said. She also said some people fear being stigmatized in a small community where it is hard to keep medical issues private.
People living in rural areas are also less likely to be insured than their urban peers. Half of rural residents work in an industry in which less than 80 percent of workers are covered by employer-sponsored insurance, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and 17 percent live in a household without either a full- or part-time worker.
“If people don’t have access, they tend to wait until they get in worse shape,” Nickerson said. “Up in the Weimar area, there really have not been a lot of services. Being able to get that going, and being able to care for the Medicare and Medi-Cal patients is a big plus.”
The clinic eventually hopes to become a Federally Qualified Health Center, an even higher HHS designation, and a federally certified Opioid Treatment Program. In the meantime, it will try to get the word out to anyone in need, regardless of religious or personal beliefs. The clinic has seen about 200 patients since it opened last month.
“We love it when we have people say they want to live healthy and have a problem and want to treat it as naturally as possible,” Steffens said. “It’s shocking to me that some people have no motivation to make any changes. They don’t necessarily want to die, but they know what’s coming, and it’s very sad. For those people, we do the best we can.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.