When Virgilio Licona founded and was named director of La Clinica del Valle, now known as Valley Wide Clinic in Rocky Ford, Colorado in 1973,it was by virtue of his work as a community organizer that he recognized the need for health services in the area. He had no experience in health care, nor in administration. But he did have a strong belief in the community health centers’ mission of providing access to health care to all Americans regardless of whether or not they could afford it.
“It was on-the-job training,” Licona acknowledged. “I had the needed motivation and commitment to the idea of providing health care, which in those days was very different. Before the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act of 1985, you could go to a hospital and be refused care if you didn’t have money. We had many Latinos that were being refused. We started a clinic in an agricultural community. It was very much migrant focused. I realized we needed clinicians. I recruited the first National Health Service Corp doctor in Colorado in the 1970s. I recruited another director and went off to train as a Physician Assistant.”
Dr. Licona was a quick study and the community health center flourished. Eventually, though, he decided he needed more than the right motivation. He attended medical school at the Universidad Autonoma Del Estado De Hidalgo in Mexico, on a scholarship from the Mexican government on a program initiated by La Raza Unida Party, a political party with which Licona was affiliated. He graduated in 1982.
“I went to medical school for political reasons,” said Licona. “As a community organizer, I was out trying to make the world a better place to live in. Health care chose me.”
Growing up poor in Texas with a father who only had a first grade education and a mother who had a sixth grade education had an impact on Licona. He knew what educational opportunity would bring.
“My humble beginnings influenced me,” he said. “I have an obligation to give to the community.”
Dr. Licona did his residency training in family medicine at the University of North Dakota. He then worked at the Pueblo Community Health Centers, Inc in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1990, and later the Salud Family Health Centers in Ft. Lupton, Colorado, in 1992.
“I’ve always been involved in rural medicine,” he said. “I’ve delivered thousands of babies. I’m an old-timey doctor. I’ve worked in nursing homes, and did house calls.”
In fact, he made house calls to hospice patients until the day he retired from Salud in December of 2015. When he retired, Dr. Licona was vice president of medical affairs.
Dr. Licona is fighting stage-four kidney cancer, but his life’s journey gives him hope and solace.
“I sleep well at night,” he said. “I have no fears because I’ve always done the right thing and I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful folks.”
He was a Medical Director Fellow of the National Association of Community Health Centers Match program in which clinicians were trained to become medical directors, and medical directors were trained to become CEOs. The group spent a month in training at Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Licona was appointed to the National Advisory Council of the National Health Service Corps by Dr. Louis Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H. Bush from 1990 to 1993.
“I enjoyed being a part of the movement,” he said. “I was committed to social change, social equality and doing it in terms of health care, knowing that if we work, we can really change the system.”
“Community health care centers in this country care for 23 million people,” he said. “We have an outstanding quality record. We were early adapters of using electronic medical records. We are rocking and rolling and the private sector is trying to catch up. We are committed to creating a system that is responsive to everyone’s needs.”
Dr. Licona said there are too many stories to tell of people’s lives changed or saved because of community health centers’ work. He added: “We’ve changed the lives of millions of people over the last 51 years.”