Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Borrego Health: A Brief History


Last updated 2/2/2023 at 10:04am

The history and transitions of the Borrego Springs Clinic is tied and bound to the vision of Borrego’s founders. It’s a tale untold and sometimes confusing. There are gaps or perhaps inaccuracies in the history due to the lack of documentation, and much must be garnered from the memories of the people involved. However, the heart of the story is community – community stepping up to build a clinic, and community stepping up to fund a clinic.

The trail begins with Alphonse A. Burnand, Jr., who was born in Colorado in 1896. He is considered the “Father of Borrego Springs.” After graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in Agriculture, he went to Delano, California, to work with grapes. His fascination was grapes – table grapes--a better way to grow and harvest quicker. While in Delano, he worked in the fields and eventually acquired his own vineyard. It was in Delano that he met the DiGiorgio family for the first time. The DiGiorgio’s were, at that time, the largest wine producers in the country.

Around 1933, Burnand made his first trip to Borrego. And in 1936, he purchased an interest in the Coyote Canyon Ranch and the de Anza Ranch. He fell in love with the desert, and found something he thought to be more economically advantageous than growing grapes. In 1945, he announced his plans for an upscale resort community, which, reportedly, would rival Palm Springs. With some Los Angeles investors, he created the Borrego Land and Development Company, and the Borrego Springs Company to handle the marketing and sales; and he formed the Borrego Water Company to nurture his vision of Borrego as one the finest resort playgrounds in California.

In 1953, his original companies were dissolved with DiGiorgio retaining stock. The remaining Los Angeles investors were bought out by La Jolla Farms owner William Black, the DiGiorgio Fruit Company, represented by Robert DiGiorgio, and James Copley, publisher of the San Diego Union and Tribune newspapers. The group formed an association and published their vision for Borrego’s future as a resort community in the Borrego Sun in 1955. Copley, had by this time added the Borrego Sun to his collection of newspapers.

Robert DiGiorgio, a member of Burnand’s association, was the Father of the Community Clinic. He came to Borrego in 1939; like Burnand, he was looking for land to grow grapes. In 1944, the entire DiGiorgio family, including founder Joseph DiGiorgio, and Robert DiGiorgio left Delano and moved to Borrego, where they bought their first land in Borrego – 1,200 acres from Burnand.

In 1962, Robert DiGiorgio became President of the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation; and had become increasingly disenchanted with growing grapes. He began taking the company out of farm production, and into land development. Under his leadership the company was renamed the DiGiorgio Corporation.

The “Fruit” was dropped as the company diversified. DiGiorgio’s first development project was de Anza Country Club in 1955, with DiGiorgio providing the major financial backing. Its success would set the stage for additional Borrego projects including: Borrego Springs Shopping Center (1965); Roadrunner Club Golf Course and Mobile Home Park (1966); Rams Hill Country Club (1981) and Indian Head Ranch (1980’s).

In 1980, the County of San Diego County Board of Supervisors had their first look at the DiGiorgio Development Corporation’s 3,142-acre-specific plan for the Rams Hill Country Club, identified as a “hotel, golf course, and residential resort project.”

The project included a new marketing benefit: A medical clinic.

“DiGiorgio was wise enough to know that in order to sell upscale homes in such an isolated location, the community would need and want access to healthcare,” stated Bob Kelly, former chair of the San Diego Foundation and the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund. “DiGiorgio was absolutely correct then, and still right today!”

The Clinic, according to the proposed development plan, would be located on a 12-acre site, donated by the developers. The hotel never materialized but the championship golf course and first medical facility in Borrego Springs was built. DiGiorgio’s proposal noted that the clinic would operate as a satellite of Scripps Clinic and Research Facility.

According to the original document, “The Clinic, besides providing primary care, would offer specialty clinics at the site, using the staff of the Scripps Clinic Medical Group. The building would be a single-story, low-profile structure, containing approximately 6,300 square feet. Although a 12 acre-site is being provided to retain an open, spacious appearance, only 3.5 acres are designated and used for the clinic site, to include entrance roads, parking and landscaping.”

The Rams Hill Country Club and 18-hole, par 72 course opened in November 1982, with residential sales opening in October 1983. The sales office was located in the East Wing of the new Scripps Clinic, at the entrance to Rams Hill and the Country Club.

A1983-article in Fore Magazine mentioned the clinic as, “Already established at Rams Hill is a satellite clinic of the world-renowned Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. Its staff and doctors, specialists, technicians, and nurses provide patients with the best in medical services across the wide range of patient needs.”

Thus began the saga of the Borrego Medical Clinic, a gift to the community by the DiGiorgio’s, Rams Hill’s developers. There is an important caveat: DiGiorgio held fundraisers in the community to build the clinic and large private donors shared in the cost of building the clinic.

Around 1989 – 1990 (date unconfirmed) Scripps pulled out of managing and staffing the clinic, stating that “financially it was not viable.” At this point in time, the Clinic did not have the federal government’s, federally qualified Health Center (FQHC) status, which made it possible for the clinic to accept and be reimbursed for Medicaid insurance. Without the FQHC insurance designation, only those who had private insurance, Medicare, and cash could afford to take advantage of Scripps services.

Scripps did leave a Grant Deed and Quitclaim Deed in 1991, that showed the Scripps Borrego Medical Clinic, free of debt or other obligations, was donated to the Borrego Community Health Foundation.

Here’s where the information gets sketchy. After Scripps left in 1991, it appears, the clinic was supported financially by a non-profit known as the Borrego Community Medical Society (BCMS). In, 1994, the BCHS refiled with the state as the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund (BVEF).

The reason for the change from the Borrego Community Medical Society to the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund is explained by Bob Kelly, a former BVEF president. Kelly stated that at some period between the 1980s and 1990s, the IRS ruled that health care systems or hospital assets had to be separated, with federal and state funds in one account and charitable assets in another. This required a separate foundation trust for private assets separate from the public/government assets.

Until this change, the Borrego Community Medical Society was giving private donations directly to the Clinic.

The new IRS law fostered the origins of the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund (BVEF), which was incorporated in 1994, with Marshal Brecht on file with the state as the principal. It was the non-profit entity created to separately hold and distribute private charitable donations to the clinic through the name and mission change to the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund.

According to Bruce Kelley, in charge of the funding at the time. “The deal was the Borrego Health Society would pay Borrego Health Clinic a guaranteed $70,000 per quarter towards its operating fund.

“The total contribution from private donors of the Borrego Health Society was $2.8 million a year,” he reported.

Bob Kelly remembers, when he was chairman of the board of trustees, he inquired about how the funds were used, “I wanted to know what we were getting for the money, which is strictly sound business practice.”

This created the rift that led to the funds being cut off from the Borrego Medical Clinic.

Bruce Hebets, who had been named CEO in 2004, by then Borrego Community Health Foundation Board Chairman Dennis Nourse, was CEO at the time. Hebets had changed the clinic’s status to a “foundation” to accommodate the acquisition of additional clinics.

And according to Kelly, he resisted any attempts at accountability.

“He simply refused to tell BVEF, the private source of funds, what they were doing with the money we were donating quarterly,” Kelly explained.

This created a major rift, leading to the separation of Borrego Valley Endowment Fund from the Foundation. So, in 2015, BVEF filed a new mission statement in its articles of incorporation.

According to Kelly they didn’t specifically outlaw Borrego Health. “The new BVEF board just expanded its mission to be more inclusive of other health care and community projects. However, in reality, it ended the $70,000 per quarter going to Borrego Community Health Foundation.

The Borrego Sun 6/1/2020

By Ellen Fitzpatrick

“Taken from an interview with Bob Kelly, the Chair of the Endowment Fund (also Chair of Sharp Healthcare, one of the biggest employers in San Diego) and Bruce Kelley (Board member with a Ph.D. in preventive medicine)

The well-intentioned group of benefactors who have supported the ideal of proper health care and essential expanded health-related services for us is still alive and well in our community.

Formerly known as the Borrego Community Health Society, BCHS has renamed its organization the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund (BVEF), (2020) and will now be known as such as they continue to provide funding for, and regularly contribute to, the wellness of our residents and visitors.

Having endowed the Borrego Community Health Foundation (BCHF) (The Borrego Springs Medical Center) with about $3.2 million since 1996, the BVEF has changed its focus from the support of the Foundation back to the community at large. They are re-directing their investments both monetarily and for the good of the community.”

Some interesting insights on how the clinic managed after Scripps pulled out sometime between 1987 and 1991.

According to Kelly, Frank Riolo, a local builder and President of Borrego Springs Bank was one of the architects of the new community clinic. Riolo, pulled together a new board of trustees. They hired staff; made Dr. Floyd Woolcott the executive director of the clinic; and initiated an extensive private funding drive, which was quite successful. The contributions, at that time, went directly to the Clinic coffers.

“Frank pulled the pieces together, and with the help of local physician investors, like Dr. Floyd Woollcott and Dr. Jaime Paris, and donors, the clinic limped along with the support of the Borrego Health Society.

Kelly praised Dr. Woolcott as the “Marcus Welby” of Borrego. “One night, I had a serious problem at 2 a.m. I called Dr. Woolcott’s office, and he surprised me with a home visit to check on me.”

Woolcott eventually opened a dental office affiliated with Borrego Community Health Foundation.

A former Chairman of the Board Harry Isley, also remembered those days.

“There was this amazing retired doctor – Russell Sheldon. He had a stellar medical career in Missouri and Oregon and retired in Borrego.

“I would meet with him monthly, regarding the clinic; and he would ask about the finances and ‘How were we doing?’; and if I had to report we were short on money, he would just say, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ And he did, by writing checks to cover gaps in the budget.

“He didn’t want Dennis Nourse, or anyone else on the Medical Clinic’s board to know what he was doing. He just wanted to make sure the clinic was working. Borrego Health was special at that time and Dr. Sheldon wanted to make sure it didn’t go under.

“That’s how we survived: With the support of many wealthy members of the community through the Borrego Community Health Society. It’s not the best way to run a clinic, but it worked, thanks to the dedication to healthcare in Borrego by both local professionals and residents,” Isley concluded.

When Bruce Hebets was named CEO of Borrego Health in 2004, he applied for and received the FQHC status from the federal government, along with a Rural Clinic Status. The requirements for this highly sought designation are a high percentage of residents at or below the government’s poverty criteria. It was this status that changed the Clinic from serving a limited number of high-income residents and tourists, into a true community clinic, able to serve all incomes, including a sliding payment scale for those with no other resources.

It was this, the golden goose of government insurance, that was the incentive for the fraudulent contracts with private dentists, and the dizzying expansion of the original Borrego Springs Clinic to 24 new low income/rural clinics and 10 mobile or partnership, partial clinics in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties.

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