Originally published in VoyageLA on July 10, 2019
Today we’d like to introduce you to Elizabeth Benson Forer.
Elizabeth let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
In college, I became very involved in advocating for family planning and reproductive rights issues, and that advocacy led me to get masters degrees in social work and public health from Columbia University. I worked at a community health center, Settlement Health, and Medical Services, in East Harlem during my second-year social work field placement and loved every minute I spent there. After completing my education, I was getting my health care at the health center while I worked at a nearby public hospital.
Settlement Health and Medical Services needed board members, so I volunteered to serve as a patient board member. When they began a search for a new executive director, I applied for the job. But I didn’t get it. Not long after that, the new executive director resigned, and the board asked me to take the position. I was 27 then and learned a lot working with the team at Settlement Health.
After five great years of serving as executive director, I left the job in 1991 to have my second child. I was thinking about going back to work and moving back to Los Angeles to be closer to family when my sister-in-law sent me the Venice Family Clinic job description.
It sounded very dynamic and on the cutting edge. It still is. I’m honored to now be in my 25th year as the CEO of Venice Family Clinic.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
At the end of my first year as Venice Family Clinic CEO, the county health system had severe financial issues and designated two county health centers on the Westside for closure. At that time, the county viewed the west side as a wealthy part of town that had less need for low- and no-cost health care. We knew that was simply not true. The need for our services in our community, in fact, had been growing steadily—so much so that we couldn’t accommodate everyone who needed our help. I knew the Clinic had to act; I also knew we couldn’t do it alone.
So I convinced the CEOs of each of the nearby health care organizations to step up to contribute what they could to help us protect the vulnerable people in our community.
With support from great partners—University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health System and David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Westside Family Health Center—we not only protected desperately needed health care services, but expanded them. We secured two county buildings, which have grown to become important sites for us, The Robert Levine Family Health Center in Venice and the Simms/Mann Health and Wellness Center in Santa Monica.
We also added programs at Santa Monica and Culver City High Schools and additional locations in Venice, Santa Monica, Mar Vista, and Inglewood. Over the past 25 years, we have more than doubled Venice Family Clinic’s capacity and programs.
The growth continues: We just received a five-year federal grant to more than double our Children First Early Head Start Program, a proven program that serves children in need up to age 3 and their families. Studies have shown children who have benefited from Early Head Start do better in school and have better health outcomes because of the services they received and their parents’ involvement in the program.
And we continue to fight to protect health care for those in need. Our health care providers not only provide medical care to people experiencing homelessness but also train more providers to meet the growing homelessness crisis in our city. We speak out in support of women’s reproductive rights because they are under attack from federal regulations and laws being enacted in other states.
The Affordable Care Act, which has improved the lives of millions of people in California, is being challenged in the courts. In our clinic alone, the expansion of Medi-Cal made possible by the Affordable Care Act has tripled the number of people who now have insurance coverage. So we are fighting to ensure our patients have the most comprehensive health care coverage possible, so they can continue to get the health care they need and deserve.
As part of our current strategic plan, we have also begun to prioritize work to address social factors beyond medical care: the need for adequate housing, a safe environment, food to eat and all the many other aspects of life that contribute to our health and wellbeing.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Venice Family Clinic – what should we know?
Venice Family Clinic has been on the front lines of the health care revolution since 1970 when it opened as a small, all-volunteer storefront operation in Venice. It has grown into the largest community health center on the west side of Los Angeles.
Our mission is to provide quality primary health care to people in need. We help people regardless of their income, insurance or immigration status. We provide comprehensive medical, behavioral health, dental and vision care; child development and health education; substance use treatment, and health insurance enrollment services to more than 27,000 men, women, and children annually.
Because we’re serving people who are often taking time off from work – and may not have transportation to return to the clinic – we focus on giving them “one-stop care.” We have a pharmacy, counseling, dental and other services available and accessible on the same day at the same site. We also can provide substance use treatment and health education, as well as help enroll our patients in health insurance as well.
The community believes in what we are doing – as evidenced by the support and partnerships we have, with more than 1,300 volunteers, including nearly 400 physicians. Our Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction is a great example of how the community has become a part of our mission. We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of this great community event. It featured works from more than 300 contemporary artists, great musical performances, tours of local artists’ studios, food trucks and much more. We are so appreciative of the contributions of so many local artists and community members who share our passion for social justice. With their help, we raised more than $1 million to serve the community.
Next year, we will celebrate Venice Family Clinic’s 50th anniversary. We are very proud of all that has been accomplished and invigorated by the challenges ahead. We are so grateful for the support and generosity of our donors, supporters, and volunteers. Together, we have been on the vanguard of a movement that sought access to health care for all. With their continued support, we are confident we will continue to lead the way in providing the best care to those in need for generations to come.