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Super-clinic finds super-need in L.A. region

Remote Area Medical Foundation provides free care with volunteer doctors and dentists for unemployed and poor people at an eight-day event at Inglewood's Forum arena.

August 12, 2009|Bob Pool and Kimi Yoshino

A homeless man spent the night camped outside the Forum, hoping to finally get glasses to help him see better. An unemployed grocery clerk waited in desperate need of root canal surgery. A former auto mechanic came with an aching back.

One by one, about 1,500 people made their way through the Inglewood sports arena, where dozens of volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and other healthcare professionals are providing free medical services this week.

Remote Area Medical Foundation is a trailer-equipped service that has staged health clinics in rural parts of the United States, Mexico and South America. It brought its health camp to urban Los Angeles County on Tuesday to begin an eight-day stint that the group's officials described as its first foray into a major urban setting.

Organizers expected big crowds, in a county with high unemployment and an estimated 22% of working-age adults lacking health insurance.

On Tuesday, the turnout was so large that hundreds had to be turned away.

"We're short-handed," said the mobile clinic's founder, Stan Brock. About 100 dentists were needed, but only about 30 showed up Tuesday. Twenty eye doctors were required, but only about five were on hand, Brock said.

The mobile clinic, based in Knoxville, Tenn., has staged 576 medical clinics over the last 25 years. They have treated nearly 380,000 patients and provided care valued at $36.9 million, said Executive Director Karen Wilson. The group raises money through contributions.

Doctors, nurses and other medical workers who donated their time said most visitors' ailments were basic. But "many have chronic diseases -- high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma -- conditions we can't deal with in just one day," said Dr. Nancy Greep of Santa Monica. Some had problems, such as a recurring cancer, that demand long-term treatment.

For local health officials, the turnout was the latest evidence of the inability of the county's healthcare system to adequately serve low-income patients and the rising ranks of the unemployed.

"It absolutely reinforced what we know based on how overwhelmed our facilities are: The current system of healthcare in the United States is broken," said Carol Meyer, chief network officer of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, after surveying the scene.

That theme -- dramatizing the need for changes in the healthcare system -- was part of the point for the elected officials who helped host the medical camp at the Forum. But for the volunteer medical personnel, the motivation was often more personal.

Ramon Merino, a 28-year-old optometry student from Highland Park, was doing vision screening. A licensed optometrist would sign off on his patients' prescriptions.

"I know there's a lot of need for this type of service," he said. "I've been on the other side of it. My mother was a single mother, and I know what it's like to struggle."

Many of the people showing up for care would not have expected to be in such a place until recently.

Verna Pierce, an administrative assistant from South Los Angeles, said she had been without insurance since she was laid off more than two years ago. She dropped her COBRA coverage because it was too expensive.

Going to the dentist or getting a mammogram is a "luxury" now, she said. "It's not deadbeats and people who just want a handout here. That's not the reality today. There are no jobs."

Public hospitals in Los Angeles County have seen a 16.5% increase in people seeking emergency care over the last fiscal year, Meyer said. At Harbor-UCLA, emergency room volume was up 25%; County-USC's volume rose 15%.

Similar increases have been seen elsewhere in the region. The Riverside County Regional Medical Center reported that its indigent patient population -- people who have no insurance and can't qualify for any -- doubled in the three-year period ending June 30, said Amy Weitz, spokeswoman for the California Assn. of Public Hospitals.

At the Forum, those seeking medical treatment included unemployed people who had lost insurance when they lost their jobs as well as some people with insurance who said they could not afford their deductibles or needed services that their carriers didn't cover.

Volunteer nurse DeAnn McEwen, who works in Long Beach, said she saw one woman, a cancer patient, who had maxed-out her benefits under her HMO and couldn't afford more out-of-pocket expenses.

Hector Cervantes, 26, of Inglewood said he was suffering from sinus problems and blurry vision in one eye. He is an El Camino College horticulture student who has no health insurance and doesn't anticipate obtaining any until he graduates and gets a job, which he hopes will be in about two years.

"I have to come back tomorrow for the vision test. I'm unemployed, so I can," Cervantes said as he sat in the Forum's stands awaiting his turn with a doctor.

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