Free health care clinic draws thousands of South LA Residents

INGLEWOOD –  “Tetanus shot! Get your tetanus shot!”

A baby wailed as a woman in khaki shorts and a t-shirt with large blue letters on the back reading “VOLUNTEER” shuffled by. She had a needle in hand, prepped to administer the booster shot to any willing patient.

“Every 10 years, everyone needs one,” she continued to yell.

The free medical clinic – sponsored by Remote Area Medical Foundation of Nashville, Tenn. – made its way to the Forum in Inglewood, where the RAM Foundation set 45 medical exam rooms, 75 dental chairs and 25 eye exam stations. Since 1985, the foundation, billing itself as the “pioneers of no-cost health care,” has traveled across the country to both urban and rural communities where health care needs are great.

But in a sign of the times, thousands lined up beginning at 3 a.m. last week on the first day of the eight-day clinic that runs from Aug. 11 through Aug. 18. Those who came to the Forum sought treatment for a variety of neglected health issues, even as President Obama and Congress wrestled with universal health care legislation that might one day render the Inglewood scene obsolete. Until that day arrives, however, free health clinics like this seem likely to draw thousands who are uninsured or underinsured.

A pair of new glasses

After seeing a flyer for the free clinic at church, Lauren Halsey, 22, arrived at The Forum as soon as the parking lot opened at 3 o’clock Wednesday morning to be one of the first in line when the clinic opened at 5:30 a.m. She wasn’t the only one. “It was gross how we were all outside waiting in this long line with our tickets to come in,” Halsey said. “It wasn’t for a concert or a game. We were all here because we need care.”

After finally entering the Forum, the one-time home of the Los Angeles Lakers, and making her way to a dentist chair, Halsey was surprised that her checkup resulted in getting a tooth pulled. “I hadn’t been to the doctor in a long time, so I had no idea I needed my tooth pulled,” she said between grimaces of pain. “I guess I had a baby tooth piece still stuck or something.”

John Thomas, 49, also spent his morning at the clinic. He said he has been in need of glasses ever since he could no longer pass the vision test to continue his career as a truck driver. “Right now, I don’t have an income to buy any glasses on my own and I don’t have insurance,” he said.

Many of those who attended the free clinic, including Halsey and Thomas, are uninsured. Many others have health insurance, but still cannot afford the costs of medical services.

The vast majority of patients needed either dental or vision services, said Pamela Hearn, executive director of Catholic Healthcare West, which provided RAM with supplies and vendors for the event,

“A lot of people here may have insurance but not dental or vision,” she said.

Since last month, California stopped including dental and vision coverage under MediCal. The state also capped enrollment in its health insurance program for children in under the age of 19 in low-income working families. Extending affordable health-care coverage to the uninsured or under-insured is one of the underpinnings of President Obama’s campaign for health-care reform.

Picking and choosing the ailment to treat

“While reform is obviously essential for the 46 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, it will also provide more stability and security to the hundreds of millions who do,” the President said in his weekly address on August 8.

Obama used last week to tour the country in a series of public meetings to further explain his health care reform plan. The president’s critics have called the reform “socialized medicine,” arguing that this recession is not the time to charge already-burdened taxpayers with yet more taxes.

“Yea, well those people don’t experience this, they never will and never have,” Halsey said while sitting in the bleachers of the Forum, overlooking the crowds of people below getting immunization shots, teeth checked or blood pressure taken. She continued to argue that investing in universal health care, despite the current state of the economy, is an investment in humanity.

Nineteen-year-old Monica Gonzalez, a dental assistant volunteering at the clinic, didn’t express any type of support for or opposition against the proposed health care reform packages. She only said that some type of care has to be available to the uninsured.

“People who don’t have coverage, they have to go with what they need the most,” Gonzalez said. “If they have a medical problem, they have to pick and choose what they want to pay for.”