Despite the expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, a free health clinic opened Thursday at the L.A. Sports Arena to a capacity crowd. The clinic, organized by Care Harbor, expects to provide medical, dental and vision services to 1,000 people a day over the course of the four-day event.
Organizers said they will see more people than in 2013, when 3,000 came to the clinic. They can handle the larger crowd thanks to more volunteers, said Care Harbor President Don Manelli.
"We have 1.3 million people without coverage in L.A. County," Manelli said. Many of them are people who came to the U.S. illegally; they are barred from buying insurance under the federal health law.
In addition, a lot of plans don't cover dental or vision services, or only cover them in part.
Pamela Randall arrived early Thursday morning with a friend to get a good spot in line. She said that she got her last pair of glasses at the free clinic two years ago, but they were stolen when someone broke into her house. She feels "lucky" that she can come back for a replacement pair, because "Medi-Cal won't pay for the glasses."
Many of those who came to the clinic are in the U.S. illegally. Tania Avila was one of them.
"I haven’t been to the dentist in about eight years," she said, "because I don’t have papers. I need fillings, but even just going to the dentist for a consultation is expensive, so I can’t afford it."
Carolina Lazcano arrived at the Sports Arena with her mother and sister. All three are in the country illegally.
"We don’t qualify for Medi-Cal and we can’t afford private insurance," said Lazcano, who had also come for dental fillings.
Her mother, Candelaria Lopez, was looking forward to a pair of glasses.
"I can’t see things close up," she said.
A number of patients show up with conditions that can’t be effectively treated in a single day, said Dr. Natalie Nevins, the clinic’s medical director.
"That’s why you’ll see that we have a whole bunch of community clinics physically here, making follow-up appointments for patients," she said, noting that people in the country illegally can take advantage of those services as well.
"There’s a huge amount of clinics out there that don’t care what your documentation is," said Nevins. "So there’s lots of places, they just might not know they exist."
Big demand for dental care
The largest amount of floor space at the clinic is taken up by dental chairs. Organizers say that even though the state recently reinstated some dental benefits for adults on Medi-Cal, there is still a lot of pent-up demand from the five years during which adult dental benefits were cut from the program.
Rochelle Clinton is on Medi-Cal, but she says it won't cover a procedure she needs on two of her back teeth.
"I went to the dentist last week, he told me to have them repaired was going to be $900," she said.
Clinton said she heard about Care Harbor from counselors at her rehab clinic, where she's being treated for cocaine and alcohol addiction. Because of her substance abuse issues, she's not taking pain medications, "so I've been in a little bit of, oh my God, pain."
Anh Tran drove to South L.A. from his home in Lancaster because he said Medi-Cal’s dental program, Denti-Cal, won’t cover the root canal he needs on a back tooth. But Tran didn’t know he needed a wristband to get into the clinic, and all the wristbands had been distributed by Thursday morning.
"I came on time, eight o clock in the morning, from Lancaster, to come here. And I get nothing. I have to go home, for nothing," he said.
The clinic also offers a variety of specialty care, including podiatry, dermatology, cardiology, mental health treatment and acupuncture.
"You have a lot of people here who are coming to see specialists," said Howard Kahn, CEO of L.A. Care, one of the two major health plans that administer L.A. County's Medi-Cal program and a funder of the free clinic. "A lot of those folks are still part of the uninsured group who don’t have health plan access to specialty care," he added.
One glitch surfaced early in the day: Unlike in previous years, organizers did not provide portable bathrooms outside the event, so people waiting in line, many of them elderly, had to wait as long as two hours to use the bathroom inside the arena.
Care Harbor President Manelli said he would "look into it."