It's about time

It was the waiting that first taught him about healthcare in this country.

For two hours, twelve-year-old Ben Cheng sat with his immigrant parents in an overcrowded waiting room. They were there to see one of the few doctors who spoke their language and would treat those like his family: low-income, immigrants, and covered by Medicaid, the lowest-paying form of public insurance. 

Two hours to see a doctor, two hours of staring at the blank walls and cracked linoleum. Children wove through the crowded room, but the adults sat quietly. They had grown used to the wait.   

It was the early 1990s and Ben Cheng’s parents had already left behind two homes in search of a better life. From their hometowns in China’s Fujian Province they moved to Hong Kong, where Ben was born. Their search eventually took them to New York City’s Chinatown.

His parents worked 12-hour shifts behind bulletproof glass in a dingy Chinese fast food restaurant. They shared a one-bedroom apartment with another Chinese couple—Ben and his parents took the bedroom and the other family had the living room. 

Doctor visits were rare. When they were finally ushered into the doctor’s examination room, he barely met their eyes. A hurried examination and a scribbled prescription—ultimately, he gave them less than 15 minutes of his time.

“We kind of just accepted that’s how it was. My parents didn’t know differently. We were just grateful to get any sort of treatment,” Dr. Cheng says. 

Watching his parents work long hours at the restaurant was motivation to seek something more. He got good grades and found paid internships. After graduating from college, he spent one year as a diabetes care manager at a health clinic whose patients were primarily Medicaid beneficiaries. That experience was eye-opening.  

“The margins for some patients were so thin,” Dr. Cheng recalls. “A twenty-dollar co-pay was the difference between someone taking their medication and staying well or their health completely failing. And many people couldn’t pay.”

Ben was already on track to become a doctor. Now, he knew what kind. Fresh out of residency, he joined the MLK Community Medical Group in South Los Angeles. He chose the group because of its commitment to high-quality care for low-income people. 

Dr. Ben Cheng

“Why am I not practicing in Beverly Hills? Because here, the impact that I can make as a doctor is so much greater,” he says. 

Financial support from L.A. Care Health Plan helped seal the deal. A grant agreement, part of the health plan’s Elevating the Safety Net initiative, helps the medical group pay Dr. Cheng a market-rate salary. Competitive salaries in turn, have attracted doctors from some of the nation’s leading schools, including UCLA, Harvard, and Yale, to work in the medical group. 

“California is facing a projected shortage of 8,800 primary care physicians by 2030, so we decided we had to be proactive,” said John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan. “Through our $155 million Elevating the Safety Net initiative, we are committed to helping the MLK Community Medical Group, and other safety net providers, to recruit the best and the brightest.” 

With COVID-19 cases surging across South LA, the need for quality doctors has only been heightened. South LA is one of the most medically underserved communities in the nation, with a physician shortage of 1,200 doctors. 

Fortunately, the pandemic coincided with a significant expansion of the MLK Medical Group. In the past year, a second clinic location opened in East Compton, and a third opened recently adjacent to the hospital. By the end of the year, this expansion will have brought an additional nine doctors to South LA, increasing access to quality healthcare. With support from funding partners like L.A. Care, patients do not have to contend with long wait times and doctors are able to give their patients far more time in the examination room. That extra time can be critical.

Dr. Ben Cheng

Dr. Cheng recalls a diabetic patient whose numbers were rising dramatically. An offhand comment helped him realize that his patient had thought his diabetes had been cured—and had stopped taking his medicine.

“It’s something that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t have the time to get to know him. With that extra time, there are no corners cut—I walk out of the room knowing that I listened and I gave the best possible care,” says Dr. Cheng. “My patients know I am there for them not only as a scientist and a teacher, but to offer emotional support as well. Time makes all the difference.”

These days, his patients bring him their concerns about COVID-19. They worry about going back to work or their children heading back to school. More visits are being conducted as telehealth appointments. But the quality care and attention they receive from Dr. Cheng remains reassuring.

His full circle journey is not lost on him. Thinking back on the doctor’s visits of his childhood, Dr. Cheng says, “It’s like seeing someone do something wrong and wanting to fix it. I feel like now, I have a chance to do it better.” 

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