Charles Fenzi | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Dr. Charles Fenzi, the most publicly known face of the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics for the past 10 years, announced he will be stepping down sometime this summer as CEO and chief medical officer of the critical health-care system that provides care and treatment to those without means or documentation. 

Fenzi, who turned 80 this past December, said he’d never really sought the chief executive spot when he was promoted from chief medical officer in 2015. “I got my arm twisted,” he explained. 

Until recently, Fenzi — famous for working 12-hour days — still saw patients, putting in half a shift a week. “It was one of the most pleasurable parts of my job,” he said. 

When Fenzi started working for the clinics in late 2011, the organization was circling the drain. Clinic doctors, he recalled, were threatening to unionize; the organization, it had just been discovered, was flat broke. The Santa Barbara Foundation convened a special emergency effort involving Cottage, Sansum, and CenCal to keep the clinics — a vital component of Santa Barbara’s social safety net — solvent. Those efforts paid off. 

“Thank goodness I had really, really skilled leadership and staff,” Fenzi said.

Once stabilized, the clinics expanded the type of services they provide and the number of patients they see. When Fenzi started, they saw about 14,000 distinct patients a year. Today, it’s 21,000. About half receive Medi-Cal; one third — those without documentation — pay out of pocket. About 8 percent are covered by Medicare, and 6 percent by commercial insurance. 

“Financially, we’ve never been so well off,” Fenzi said. 

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COVID, he explained, dramatically expanded the number of grants for which the clinics are eligible to compete. Thanks to this funding, all eight individual clinics on the South Coast are now providing Behavioral Wellness screening and testing. All children are screened for the invisible scars caused by childhood trauma, clinically referred to as adverse childhood experiences. During Fenzi’s tenure, the clinics also expanded dental services. 

They’ve also collaborated in opening two centers that focus exclusively on substance abuse and addiction issues. Fentanyl, he said, possesses the most pressing challenge. “This is the first pandemic we saw,” he said. Even stimulants like Adderall, he said, now are laced with fentanyl. People find themselves taking the highly addictive and lethal drug without realizing they’re doing so. 

These two collaborative projects are staffed by two medical addiction specialists and two psychiatric nurse practitioners: one from Yale, the other from Vanderbilt. “These are as rare as hens’ teeth,” he said. The demand is such, Fenzi said, they could use twice as much space. 

Fenzi’s last big project is the construction of a new three-story clinic on the city’s Westside right across West Micheltorena Street from the existing clinic located in an old two-story bungalow. Thus far, Fenzi has helped raise all but $1.6 million of the $6 million needed. 

Fenzi is related to Dr. Francesco Franceschi, the famed botanist so responsible for Santa Barbara’s sprawling urban forest, but he grew up in Arizona, where his father — a Santa Barbara native — worked as a mining engineer. In 2008, Fenzi and his wife moved to Santa Barbara, where he hoped he would learn to sail. After a few abortive efforts in the face of rough winds and rougher water, those dreams, however, were dashed.

Fenzi said he’ll be sticking around at least until mid-summer, when his successor is selected. After that, he’ll be on hand to help with the transition. Asked what he’ll do after 10 years of 12-hour days, he replied, “I don’t know. I may have to learn how to play golf.”

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