Insured, uninsured wait for treatment at free clinic

Dental patients are treated during a free health clinic at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles.

Tess Vigeland: And before we leave the topic of healthcare we wanted to note an event that's taking place here in Los Angeles this weekend. The nonprofit CareNow has been here before. They set up at a local sports arena and provide free medical care to thousands of people in a four-day period. Some of the patients this week are among the 50 million people in America who don't have health insurance.

But Marketplace's Jennifer Collins found that many who show up aren't covered for all the care they need.


Jennifer Collins: Los Angeles resident Natasha Reese has been waiting to get her teeth checked for weeks.

Natasha Reese: I bit down on something one day and the filling came out. So I've been dealing with excruciating pain, day and night. I've been popping ibuprofen like candy.

Then she found out about the free clinic that offers medical, vision and dental care.

Reese: I heard about this and I've been anticipating the day.

Reese has been without a job for a couple of years. She does have California's version of Medicaid. But that doesn't cover dental. Another patient 49-year-old Servando Medrano lost his insurance when he was laid off a year ago. Last week, he was bitten by a spider.

Servando Medrano: My leg got all swollen up and puss was coming out and I went to the emergency. That's when they charged me 500 bucks for 30 minutes.

Now he needs a follow-up. As the clinic's doors opened Thursday, patients got restless and rushed the gate. Security for the event got out the megaphones.

Security guard: I guarantee everybody on this line will be taken care of.

The nonprofit CareNow operates the clinic with hundreds of volunteers. Founder Don Manelli says for about $300,000, the clinic will serve nearly 5,000 people this weekend. He says about half will likely have some kind of medical coverage but that doesn't mean they can always get into a doctor.

Don Manelli: The local clinics are absolutely slammed on dental patients. I think it's like a five or six month wait or something. If you've got a tooth ache that's a long time to wait.

Those long waits may not get better, despite federal health care reform. Glenn Melnick is a health economist at USC.

Glenn Melnick: Even after the law comes online and people get covered, if you were to open up a free clinic, you would get thousands of people lined up in part because the waiting times to see doctors is going to grow.

CareNow volunteer: You can go sit in those bleachers over there. They'll call you by your number.

Inside the Los Angeles Sports Arena, more patients came in for triage -- for everything from bad vision to poor circulation. But the biggest need: Dental. Sixty-one year old Marcia Jones was a security guard, who's now on disability.

Marcia Jones: I'm hoping that I can get some teeth put in, back in my mouth. OK.

Collins: Wait so you said, you don't have teeth?

Jones: No, no teeth.

Clinic organizers say there's good news for her. Several Los Angeles doctor's offices are offering follow-up care, in some cases for free.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.

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