On Tuesday, dozens of healthcare workers represented by the union University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA Local 9119) who work at Venice Family Clinic’s Colen Health Center rallied and spoke out against the planned closure of pharmacy and drug counseling services in the Culver City area, including the Mar Vista Gardens and Del Rey neighborhoods. Venice Family Clinic is an affiliate of UCLA Health.

We were joined by People Organizing for Westside Renewal (POWER), Pastor Smart of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, and former L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin.

On Monday, Venice Family Clinic began issuing layoff notices to pharmacists. Healthcare workers at the clinic say that the scheduled shuttering of these services will significantly harm the local community, especially Spanish-speaking residents.

Why maintaining pharmacy services matters

The Colen Health Center pharmacy serves a diverse and vulnerable patient population. This includes seniors who need personalized attention to ensure that they receive the correct medication, dosage, discharge education, and information about drug interactions that can potentially have serious implications. It includes parents with young kids, many of whom cannot take multiple buses out of the neighborhood to the next closest pharmacy.

Venice Family Clinic’s decision to end pharmacy services at Colen is particularly alarming as corporate pharmacies are closing like the nearby Rite Aid on Centinela. The integrated approach provided by the clinic, covering medical, mental health, prescription, and counseling needs, is a lifeline for many, and its reduction will have severe consequences.

“We are a health safety net for many members of this community. Some of our patients are undocumented, and many are underinsured or uninsured altogether. Sometimes even if they have insurance, their copays are too high to afford medication elsewhere,” said Jeanice Carlson, a pharmacist at Colen Health Center who has worked at Colen Health Center since 2019. “Through grants and subsidies, we can often give them meds at cost or for free. This closure means some patients will likely go without any medication. That could cause serious health issues and even death. This is completely unacceptable.”

“As a pharmacist, I am extremely concerned for my patients. Our elderly patients, many of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers, already struggle to keep their medications straight. Losing personalized services here will put them at greater risk of taking the wrong medications or maybe the wrong doses, as corporate pharmacies won’t have access to their electronic medical records the way we do,” said Kayla Pang, a pharmacist at Colen Health Center. “This is so heart-breaking because this planned closure goes directly against our mission and values as a clinic. Having access to high-quality pharmacy and drug counseling services in your own neighborhood is something everyone deserves. Shuttering those services here will cause undue hardship for my patients, many of whom are already struggling.”

Why protecting drug counseling services matters

In addition to closing pharmacy services at the Colen Health Center, Venice Family Clinic is also ending drug counseling services at this location, as well. This will be catastrophic for our community.

On Tuesday, we heard from Rose Dominguez, a Drug Counselor who works out of the Colen location, as well as former LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin, talk about the importance of maintaining these services.

Creating obstacles for people seriously imperils their recovery. I am telling you this firsthand not only as a drug counselor but as someone who is in recovery myself,” said Rose Dominguez, a drug counselor at Colen. “We are living through an epidemic of meth, fentanyl, crack, opiates, all of these drugs in our streets. We must have resources nearby and within walking distance for the survival of people in our community—the parents, the siblings, the loved ones, the children. We are talking about life and death.”

“It may seem like a small inconvenience to shut down a service and tell people to go to another facility in Venice. That is not a small inconvenience. That is a huge, huge problem for many of the people who live in this neighborhood. As someone in recovery myself, I will tell you that all it takes is an additional roadblock and an additional stumble to keep you away from services and from rehab—and to keep you in the throes of addiction,” said former Councilmember Mike Bonin. “I was here when they opened this clinic several years ago, and I heard the speeches and I heard the promises. And I’m here today to say to Venice Family Clinic, please reverse this action. Please reinstate these services. Please keep these services here for the people who absolutely depend upon you.”

Venice Family Clinic says the decision is financial, but do the facts support their assertion?

Venice Family Clinic’s stated mission is, “To provide quality primary health care to people in need.” It’s hard to see how this decision aligns with that mission. According to the clinic’s own website, VFC is, “celebrating a year of growth and service marked by the introduction of a new CEO, the expansion of its programs, locations, and services, and the continued delivery of high-quality care to its community.”

Venice Family Clinic has said it has to shutter the pharmacy and drug counseling services at Colen Health Clinic because of lower government reimbursement rates on drugs. However, at the same time, the Clinic has its highest year-end balance since FY 2015 at over $12 million, and the top 15 executives are earning over $306,000 per year on average—36 percent more than in FY 2015. In addition to being an affiliate of UCLA Health, which has tremendous resources at its disposal, Venice Family Clinic’s:

  • Program service revenue including third-party and Medi-Cal pharmacy reimbursements increased by over 150 percent from FY 2015 to 2022 from $12.8 to $32.2 million, respectively
  • Total annual revenues on average outpaced expenditures by 3 percent from FY 2015 through 2022
  • Total contributions, grants, and other gifts increased 151 percent from FY 2015 through 2022
  • The year-end fund balance increased from FY 2015 to FY 2022 by 545 percent and from FY 2017 to 2022, it increased by 53 percent
  • The cost of pharmaceutical supplies has dropped by over 32 percent from FY 2015 to 2022

All financial data obtained from 990s from FY 2015 through 2022 via ProPublica.

Community Response to the Closure

On November 9, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council voted to deliver this letter to Venice Family Clinic leadership opposing the closure of pharmacy and drug counseling services at the Colen Health Center and asking them to reverse this decision. Community members also joined Venice Family Clinic workers at Tuesday’s event and shared stories of their own.

“I live here. I work here. In my community, we have a hard time trusting people that come from the outside. Venice Family Clinic is taking away more than just the pharmacy, they’re taking away the trust and safety that we feel here in the community to be able to open up about what’s going on with ourselves healthwise,” said Silvia Bravo, a Resident Advisory Council leader for the nearby Mar Vista Gardens community. “I plead that they reconsider this decision and keep our pharmacy open.”

“The patients who will be affected by the closure of Colen’s pharmacy and drug counseling services are among our community’s most underserved and marginalized. I worry about seniors who need personalized pharmacy services and now could be at greater risk of prescription errors. Parents with young children who live within walking distance will now be forced to take multiple buses to their nearest pharmacy. Patients who need in-language services, especially our Spanish-speaking neighbors, may no longer be able to receive them nearby. Accessible and affordable drug counseling services will be harder to find, as the opioid crisis continues to impact local communities,” said Maria Sanchez, a local community member who is active with People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER). “Venice Family Clinic and the Colen Health Center were founded specifically to provide high-quality services to these people. This decision flies in the face of their mission and professed values.”

Finally, we heard from Pastor Smart of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California: “As people of faith, we believe in the sanctity of every human life and the moral imperative to care for the least among us. This struggle is not just about keeping a pharmacy open; it’s about standing up for the rights of those who are often overlooked and ensuring that everyone—regardless of their economic status, the language they speak, or where they come from—has access to the healthcare they need,” Pastor Smart said. “Our call today is not just about keeping pharmacy doors open. It’s a call to ensure that every person in our community has access to the healthcare they need and in the language they speak. As we face this challenge, let us come together as a community. Let us raise our voices, not only in prayer but in advocacy for those who need us most.”

 Photo provided by Andrew Baker

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