Julianna Rivera, 5, of Los Angeles, watches as her father, Julio Rivera,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
On one side of the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Thursday morning, doctors treated patients for swollen feet, breathing problems and high blood pressure.
On the other side, county health workers began enrolling them in a free coverage program in preparation for the federal healthcare overhaul.
Many of the 4,800 people seeking care at the annual massive free clinic this weekend will become eligible for health insurance in 2014 when the national law takes effect. Organizers said raising awareness about the healthcare changes is crucial.
"It's as important as the care being delivered this year," said Howard Kahn, chief executive at L.A. Care Health Plan, one of the main sponsors. "We need to let people know about the coverage."
Some are already eligible for Healthy Way LA, a free health-coverage program for certain low-income county residents. The program is seen as a bridge to healthcare reform, because the enrolled patients will become eligible for Medi-Cal in 2014. Other county residents will qualify for subsidies to purchase healthcare under the state's insurance marketplace, the California Health Benefit Exchange.
Elias Requena, 59, said he hopes he will become eligible for insurance under the law. Sitting in a makeshift exam room at the Sports Arena on Thursday, Requena said that he had shortness of breath. He told the physician that he also had sleep apnea, high blood pressure and heart problems, and that he spent more than a week in a hospital a few years ago.
Physician Karen Cheng checked his lungs and heart and said she didn't see any obvious reasons for the shortness of breath. But she told him he really needed to go to a clinic so he could have a more comprehensive exam, including a stress test and an ultrasound.
"Do you not have a doctor who follows you?" asked Cheng.
"I don't go to the doctor anymore," said Requena, who lives in Eagle Rock. "I take my medication and I think that's enough."
"That's not the best thing for you, Elias," the doctor told him. "We want to monitor you."
Gail Wallace, 50, is also uninsured and said she can't afford to go to the doctor.
"If you don't have a job, you don't have insurance," she said. "If you don't have insurance, you're lost."
Wallace walked into the specialty care area of the clinic and stepped up to a check-in table.
"Who are you here to see?" a volunteer asked.
"I need all of these — cardiology, a chiropractor and dermatology," Wallace said as she looked down at papers showing the options. "Years of no healthcare takes a toll, especially when you start getting old."
The clinic, which runs through Sunday and relies on volunteers, offers medical, dental and vision care, as well as preventive services like counseling on nutrition and smoking cessation. In addition to educating patients about their options for coverage under healthcare reform, volunteers connected them to county and community health centers for follow-up care.
Though more people will have coverage under the federal law, there will still be a need for clinics like the one at the Sports Arena, organizers said. For example, undocumented immigrants won't qualify for insurance under healthcare reform. Others may earn too much money for Medi-Cal but not enough to pay for other coverage, even with government subsidies.
"The number of uninsured will go down but not away," said Don Manelli, president of CareHarbor, which staged the event. "We expect there to be a need for what we are providing for some time to come."