Santa Clara County runs a robust network of health care services with three hospitals and 13 primary care clinics, but none are in the north or west sections of the county. That could change soon.
County supervisors voted 5-0 on Tuesday to find a place to put a county-run clinic in District 5, which encompasses north county cities including Palo Alto and Mountain View. The effort is being spearheaded by county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who argues that too many low-income residents are being forced to travel long distances for care.
"Many of these residents must travel far from home to access services from Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, despite working multiple jobs and having limited public transportation options," Simitian said.
For years, Simitian has repeatedly raised concerns that the county has operated limited health care services in his district, leaving it up to nonprofit partners to pick up the slack and provide accessible care to residents — particularly those who cannot afford private insurance premiums.
The county has leaned on health care services provided by MayView Community Health Center — with locations in Palo Alto and Mountain View — and has even contracted with Ravenswood Family Health Center for residents to receive services just over the county border in East Palo Alto. Planned Parenthood is also looking to lease space to the county to provide specialty services at its Mountain View location.
This arrangement hasn't been perfect, Simitian said. MayView has a financially shaky history, and Planned Parenthood — which provides primary care services to county residents — faced closure in 2017 when it was displaced by residential development.
What's more, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced hundreds of thousands of county residents to rely on county-run services when other health care providers fell short, particularly for tests and vaccinations.
Absent a clinic in the north county, many are turning to Valley Health Center Sunnyvale, which operates next door to District 5. The clinic is bursting at the seams and has long wait times for appointments, caused in part by thousands of patients hailing from Palo Alto to Santa Clara.
Backing Simitian's efforts are Los Altos Hills Mayor Kavita Tankha and Los Altos Mayor Neysa Fligor, both of whom called for greater access to affordable care in the region.
The fifth supervisorial district is largely considered the most economically prosperous, which might explain why it's been shortchanged on county-run health services, Simitian said. But the need is still there: More than 39,000 district residents are on Medi-Cal, and 57,000 residents have a household income under 400% of the federal poverty line. County officials estimate between 10,000 and 25,000 people could be served through a north county clinic.
While it makes sense to focus health care resources on the highest-need areas of the county, Simitian said the status quo is causing problems. Lower-income families in the north county lack easy access to services, and could very well decide to leave the area and further gentrify communities that are already struggling to retain diversity.
"It's tough to be a person of modest means in a more prosperous community: You are largely invisible, people say there is no 'need' there, which means then that there are no services there," Simitian said. "If you are a person of modest means, it's that much tougher to hang on when you need it, to access the services that you need."
County officials are expected to come to the board with a timeline to find a suitable property, construct a clinic and begin accepting patients.