On July 11th, L.A. Care Health Plan, the nation’s largest managed care organization that serves more than 2.4 million members in Los Angeles County held a white coat ceremony for its 2023 Los Angeles Care scholars. All of the eight recipients are part of the Elevating the Safety Net program.

Currently, Los Angeles County is experiencing a physician shortage that threatens the safety net that provides health care to vulnerable and low-income communities. To address this crisis, L.A. Care launched Elevating the Safety Net in July 2018, in hopes of  alleviating the physician shortage. 

The program provides full medical school scholarships to diverse students who are passionate about serving low-income communities. As of now, 152 providers have been recruited into the county safety net, with 40 receiving full scholarships from the program.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 75% of medical students leave school with education debt of $196,000. The scholarships that are provided by the Elevating the Safety Net program eliminate the huge debt that can require many physicians to choose higher-paying specialties or to serve in more affluent communities.  

Now in its sixth year, the program has awarded four scholarships to Alexander Afewerki, Lule DeShields, Berenice Elizarraraz, and Sigry Ortiz Flores, who are attending Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. The other four scholarships went to Victor Arechiga, Daisy Hernandez-Casas, Itzel Melgoza and Rick Rios, who are attending the David Geffen School of Medicine at The University of California, Los Angeles.

Daisy Hernandez-Casas is one of the eight recipients that got accepted into Elevating the Safety Net program this year. Hernandez-casas learned about the scholarship program from her dad who is a gardener. Her dad was discussing Hernandez-Casas’ next steps in her career with a client when the client mentioned a full-paid scholarship from L.A. Care.

Daisy Hernandez-Casas/David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

As a first-generation student, Hernandez-Casas has many responsibilities, one of which is interpreting for her mother at several doctor’s appointments. Having grown up in Glassell Park, where her family was unable to maintain a consistent primary care physician, Hernandez-Casas became committed to improving access to primary care. 

“My parents always told me how important it was to maintain my goals, and thankfully they pushed me forward to finishing high school, going to college and pursuing medical school.” she said.

In 2020, Hernandez-Casas graduated with a degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics from UCLA. While there, she volunteered as a Spanish interpreter at the Venice Family Clinic. She also mentored students from underserved communities as a member of the student group Hermanas Unidas. She is now a Research Associate and Health Coach at UCLA Health, focusing on substance use prevention.

Hernandez-Casas really wants to emphasize health equity among her Latino community and that’s one of the main reasons she wanted to pursue medicine. “Im so excited and lucky to study medicine but also be able to stay here in Los Angeles, which was very important for me because I wanted to stay near my family since I’m very close to them,” she said.

Following the recent SCOTUS decision on affirmative action, many safety net stakeholder groups are concerned that it will negatively impact ethnically diverse applicants to medical school.

On Thursday, June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against using the affirmative action approach at certain private and public colleges and universities. With a 6-3 ruling, the court has decided that the race of a student applying for college will not play a factor in deciding whether they are admitted or not. 

The decision came from the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College case and the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina case. The Court ruled that both institutions’ affirmative action programs, are race-conscious and violate the Constitution, according to CBS News.

Last year, the American Medical Association stated that there was a shortage of representative, diverse physicians. Projections from the association anticipate a massive shortage of physicians in the U.S. within 12 years. 

As of now, Latinos make up only 5.8% of the physician workforce. Black people only make up 5% of the physician workforce and Native Americans or Alaska Natives make  up 0.3% of physicians.

According to an analysis published by Penn Medicine researchers found that “patient-provider race concordance led to higher odds of receiving the maximum patient experience score”. Which means that patients with similar racial or ethnic backgrounds to their physicians perform better when it comes to their health.

John Baackes is Chief Executive Officer of L.A. Care Health Plan. Mr. Baackes brings more than 40 years of health care experience. Before joining L.A. Care, Mr. Baackes was CEO of Senior Whole Health in Cambridge, MA, a voluntary health care plan for more than 10,000 low-income seniors in Massachusetts and New York. 

John Baackes  CEO of  L.A. Care Health Plan.

Mr. Baackes currently serves on the boards of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), California Association of Health Plans (CAHP), Local Health Plans of California (LHPC), Project Angel Food, Urban Voices Project, and Charles Drew University. 

The LA Safety Net Coalition was established by Mr.Baackes in 2022 to explore ways to help fund Medi-Cal while expanding access to care for the working poor. The vision has evolved into a statewide coalition.

Elevating the Safety Net mitigates undergrad and medical debt, which are major barriers to higher education. “For me and I hope, others, this was a valuable lesson in the value of coalitions acting as a system of care as opposed to each segment trying to go it alone. Let’s learn from this achievement to make further improvements in financing as well as addressing burnout and building a pipeline for more providers to be in the Medi-Cal network, “ Mr. Baackes said.

A new national survey finds that nearly two-thirds of physicians still owe money from medical school and of those doctors, 32% had more than $250,000 in debt remaining, according to Fierce HealthCare.

The preexisting barriers, according to Mr. Baackes, are the cause of shorate in physicians, leading to a negative effect in low-income communities. Also, as a result of student loan debt, physicians have been discouraged from opening their own practices, working in rural and underserved communities, and selecting higher-paying specialties.

This program takes away a huge debt for community-minded physicians that can force them to choose high-profit positions over service in low-income areas.

Mr. Baackes hopes that other health organizations see what he is doing, primarily with the Elevating the Safety Net program, as it takes away a huge debt for community-minded physicians.

Amairani Hernandez is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of the California State University of Los Angeles with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She is a staff multimedia journalist, who focuses on...