South LA clinic opens doors; offers free medical, dental, vision care

Sept. 27, 2012, 12:37 p.m.

A patient receives complimentary dental care on Thursday at the Care Harbor clinic. (José Martinez/OnCentral)

Ken Ogu just had bad timing, which is why he stood outside the barriers that blocked off the line snaking into the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Ogu, 36 and uninsured, only heard about the free, four-day Care Harbor clinic on Wednesday, one day before it began. By then, it was too late to get a wristband, all 4,800 of which had been handed out on Monday to folks who waited hours – days, even – to get one. Without a wristband, Ogu couldn’t get the free medical, dental and vision care that hundreds of volunteer providers are offering through Sunday.

"I'm hoping for some kind of a miracle to get in today without the wristband," said Ogu, as he looked on to the crowd of people waiting to be admitted to the arena. "It doesn't look good because there are a lot of people waiting and every single person seems to have a wristband."

Ogu's wife was also there, and he said she was the one who really needed help: some tooth extractions, which had been causing her a lot of pain. He said he wouldn't mind some care, either.

He's never had a family doctor, and it's been around four years since he last saw one. It's also been "at least 10 years" since he sat in a dentist's chair and he's never been to an optometrist – he says he's never needed one.

If his wife doesn't get in today – and she probably won't, not today nor any other of the days the clinic is open – Ogu says they'll look into payment plans for the approximately $4,000 they'll need to pay at a private dentist to have the procedure done.

He's used to a different health care system – like the one in his native country of Nigeria.

"There's no medical insurance [there]," he said. "You go to the hospital, you see the doctor, you pay cash, you leave. But it doesn't cost as much as it costs here in the U.S., so it's not really an issue."

It certainly wasn't like it is here, he said, "where you're pretty much required to have insurance, and when you don't have it, you almost have to take a loan to pay it off."

Ogu may have to do that.

"Sad to say, but I think I was better off back there," he said.

An 'amazing' diversity

The Care Harbor clinic will serve around 4,800 patients over four days, and is run by about 3,000 volunteers, most of them health providers. The services range from dental (cleanings, fillings, extractions, root canals) to medical (women's health, podiatry, exams) to vision (eye exams, glasses) to screenings (for blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol) to immunizations (flu shots).

But Don Manelli, the CEO of Care Harbor, said the biggest need by far is dental care. And in a county of 2.2 million uninsured, that need is big.

"You can make a big societal statement about this, but it's really about individual people," Manelli said at Monday's wristband distribution. "And the demographic here in line is amazing. There are MBAs and homeless, and everything in between. They're just caught at this point in their life without access to health care."

Melissa Quiñones fit that description well. The 33-year-old was on her way to a well-deserved dental check-up on Thursday morning – she'd waited eight hours for her wristband on Monday, and on Thursday had driven from Long Beach and then waited five hours in line for her appointment.

"I'm taking advantage of the free benefits because I don't have [them] currently," she said. Quiñones lost her job last month, and lost her benefits at the beginning of September. She's used to having medical, dental and vision care accounted for, and when it's not, she says it's a lot more "stressful."

"It's just an inconvenience," she said. "You have a toothache or something's wrong – you just don't know when you're going to be able to get that done. And you've got to live through that pain, which causes depression, anxiety – then you get crazy."

She's unsure when she'll have a job again, but losing her benefits has done at least one thing: ensured she'll never take them for granted again.

"I didn't even use my health care, dental and vision as much as I should have when I was employed," said Quiñones. "So now that I don't have that? Wow. I'm very grateful that I'm here today, able to get this done."

Twenty-year-old Henry Ramos' situation is a bit different. He waited seven hours on Monday for his wristband. Like many others, he needed dental work. He recently lost his eligibility for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program, and is out of work.

He says he's taking what he can get.

Being on Medi-Cal, he says, "was really hectic. It was just going from doctor to doctor. Nobody could ever really have a standardized doctor. It's just bad."

He added that being on Medi-Cal sometimes meant getting sub-par doctors, and dismissed a question about whether he'd had a good experience with those care providers.

"It's not about a good or bad experience," he said. "It's about how much you can afford, how much you can get."

Candita Potts, a nurse practitioner who's the clinic's women's health station, said that kind of need is why she's volunteering her expertise.

"This is my passion, and this is something I have a heart to do, for the rest of my life," she said. "I just want to be able to bring my experience and share something with the community."

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