5,000 patients expected at free LA health care clinic over 4 days

An optometrist performs an eye exam on a patient at CareNow's free clinic in the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Thursday.
An optometrist performs an eye exam on a patient at CareNow's free clinic in the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Thursday.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Organizers began letting the first 100 people into the L.A. Sports Arena Thursday morning, jumpstarting a four-day free health clinic for the uninsured and underinsured.

Organized by the nonprofit CareNowLA, more than 5,000 people are expected to show up for free medical care during the clinic.

The clinic will provide health services ranging from filling cavities to eye exams and cardiology checkups.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas praised the event at a midday news conference while criticizing opponents of President Obama’s healthcare reform law.

“What is your solution to what has got to be seen as a crisis?" he asked. "And furthermore, stand in these lines and tell the people who are here seeking care that you wish to deny them the opportunity to feel better and reach their pull potential.”

Ridley-Thomas helped organize the free clinic that has lined up 800 medical professionals to volunteer their services at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Over 70 of these volunteers are coming from USC, said Dr. Michael R. Cousineau on the Madeleine Brand Show Thursday.

Cousineau is an associate professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. "Dental care is a huge need and we just do not have the resources to deal with it," he said.

People have increasingly been putting off getting dental care until they're sick or their conditions get much worse, Cousineau said. Then, they often end up in the emergency room with a much more serious problem.

Although large public events like the one put on by CareNowLA are effective in mobilizing volunteers, Cousineau said there's over 50 primary care clinics in L.A. that offer free or reduced-cost primary care. For patients with chronic issues like diabetes, a single exam may help diagnose and refer them, but they will need to seek consistent monitoring and care.

People lined up more than 24 hours in advance earlier this week to obtain wristbands that will allow them to enter the clinic. After treatment, patients will be referred to local medical centers that have offered to provide free followup care to the patients. The nonprofit says more dentists, nurse practitioners and primary care physicians are still needed.

Natalie Nevins, the medical director of the clinic, said the issue of medicare stretches beyond L.A.'s borders: "In California we've got about 19 million uninsured — it's a really big issue nationwide. So the focus for us is not just about the four days of a clinic, but what happens after we leave."

Although President Barack Obama's health care is set to take effect in 2014 and help alleviate some of the strain on free clinics, many people will still lack access to dental care. In addition, Cousineau said, Obama's plan won't cover undocumented immigrants, and because of Los Angeles' largely immigrant population, there will still be a great demand for additional free health care.

KPCC's Alex Cohen and the Associated Press contributed to this story.