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Seeking a shot at free clinic

Thousands line up for wristbands that will afford them sorely needed treatment.

April 25, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

Nearly 5,600 people lined up outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Sunday, many camping out in the cold on the sidewalk overnight, to claim wristbands and a chance for free dental and medical treatment at a massive health clinic this week.

"It's kind of hard to ignore," said organizer Don Manelli. "Somebody waits all night outside to see a dentist — that tells you something."

The seven-day clinic, which starts Tuesday, will include vision exams, mammograms and diabetes screening, among other services. A team of more than 300 volunteer doctors, dentists and other medical professionals each day will see patients from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

When the gates opened Sunday morning, the line for wristbands snaked around the arena and reflected the face of America's uninsured and underinsured. Most of those seeking treatment came from throughout Los Angeles County, but some drove from neighboring counties. Many were unemployed, disabled or retired. But there were also workers of all ages, some with children, who said they could not afford health insurance. Some were illegal immigrants. Most of those with insurance, including government plans, said their coverage did not include dental or eye care.

By 6 p.m., all slots for Tuesday and Wednesday had been taken. Organizers plan to announce later this week when they will distribute the remaining wristbands for the other days.

Anthony Jackson, 71, a retired nurse and mail clerk, shivered in his wheelchair under a worn brown comforter. Jackson needs new bifocals and dental work, but he said Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors, does not cover either now. Waiting next to Jackson was his in-home health aide, who also needed to see a doctor.

Another patient, Penny Zellman, drove up from Garden Grove at 4 a.m. with her husband, Jason, and daughters, Julia, 8, and Alexis, 4. Zellman lost her job as a pharmacy technician two weeks ago — shortly before she would have qualified for family health insurance. Her husband, who works in vacation sales, does not have insurance. He needs two root canals, and Alexis needs eye surgery.

Because they both work, the Zellmans do not qualify for Medi-Cal, the state's health insurance program for low-income families.

"We're happy for whatever they can do," said Penny Zellman, who got wristbands for the whole family.

Remote Area Medical, a Tennessee-based nonprofit, held a clinic last year at the Forum in Inglewood that drew more than 6,300, but many had to be turned away because of a lack of volunteers. Now, organizers are trying to enlist enough volunteers to treat 8,400 patients.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission is donating the space, and the organizers are providing the bulk of the supplies and equipment, Manelli said.

Phyllis Vincent, 59, of Pasadena is a background actor without health insurance who needs new glasses and a tooth extraction. She was turned away from the Forum clinic but got a wristband Sunday. Vincent said the line was long but went quickly because volunteers were better organized than last time.

"They learned a lot from last year," she said. "It's just that the need is so great."

The line included many single adults and a few families who fall into the gap between Medi-Cal and Medicare. There were few uninsured young professionals.

"We told a lot of people who definitely need it," said Eric Gutierrez, 31, of Burbank, an actor and behavioral therapist who got a wristband after waiting in line since 2 a.m.

"I'm surprised not to see more people our age," said Skye Noel, 28, an actress and dance teacher who lives near MacArthur Park and had encouraged others to get wristbands. "I know hundreds of actors, and they're not here."

Megan Jones, 23, of Santa Clarita, got in line at noon Saturday. She needs a root canal and to have her four wisdom teeth removed.

Jones, like many of those in line, has a job but earns $300 a week. Her part-time work at a real estate title company does not come with health insurance. Like many young professionals, she figured she could live without insurance. Then she discovered she needed a $1,200 tooth extraction. She said her jaw is so swollen, it hurts to chew.

"How am I supposed to live off of $300 and pay thousands of dollars to have my teeth fixed?" said Jones, who lives with her parents. The clinic, she said, is "a dream come true."

molly.hennessy-fiske@

latimes.com

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