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Health Care: What Ails L.A.’s Uninsured?

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Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child."

People clutched their green, numbered tickets for what may have been the most coveted event at the Los Angeles Sports Arena this year.  It was still in the early morning hours of Friday, October 21, 2011. The ticket holders were children, teens, parents with infants, students, middle-age folk and senior citizens from various ethnic backgrounds. Some people looked like they took the day off work or class; some looked like they may have underemployed or unemployed, and many may have been homeless. A music concert didn’t draw the 3,571 people from diverse backgrounds to the Los Angeles Sports Arena for four days. It was the chance for free medical care at CareNOW Los Angeles, organized by CareNow, a volunteer-based organization that provides medical services to underserved populations.

I had read about this event last year and was struck by two dueling emotions. On one hand I was deeply touched that doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists and other health care professionals would give of their time. On the other hand, I was enraged that thousands of people living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world had to wait possibly all day – or more – for the chance to get free medical care.

The headlines in the papers seem to point to an increase in the number of the medically underserved. “Medi-Cal Cuts Approved,” “Blue Shield To Return $283 Million in Excess Profits in Policyholders,” “Thirty Companies Paid No Taxes ’08-’10,” and “Wal-Mart Offers Latest Sign That Employer-Based Health Coverage Is Failing.” These headlines are all related to the lack of basic health care today.  This year I decided to put down the newspaper and volunteer.

“You will need to lower the patients’ expectations today,” one of the lead dentists told volunteers before the opening of the dental clinic. Patients could only have one procedure done today and patients could not receive services both at the dental clinic and the optometry clinic. The resources were not possible, given the need for services.  I thought, “How do I tell someone that they can only receive one procedure and not get a dental exam if they also needed their eyes examined?” Well, I just told them.

Some of the patients, who I walked with from the triage waiting area to the X-ray, cleaning, filling, or extraction waiting areas in the bleachers, needed multiple procedures. A few folks opened their mouths to point to the location of pain.  A few folks shook their heads. A few protested. Others did not say a thing. Some patients had white wristbands and were moved to the front of the line. They were the folks who had come Thursday, the first day of the clinic, or because patient demand was so high Friday. One woman told me she waited from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday to get her admittance wristband. One man told me he last saw a dentist, “a couple of years ago.” Another woman, in the dental exam chair, sighed, “I have about $13,000 worth of work I need…well, at least I get some of it done today.”

I also talked to a few of the volunteers. A refrain I heard throughout the morning was, “I just wanted to help.” One of the dentists told me he has a private practice but also volunteers with another community clinic in his free time. A dental hygienist volunteer said she was at the clinic the previous day at “5 o’clock in the morning, like today, and tomorrow.”

This year CareNow also focused on follow-up care, and when patients checked out, they were given follow-up referrals. At the end of the four days, according to the CareNow website, the 3,571 patients that came through the Sports Arena received a total of 7,279 medical, dental or vision exams, 1,788 immunization shots and 1,085 follow-up appointments or referrals.

It is estimated that two million Los Angeles County residents are uninsured. Angelenos really do need care now. Thank goodness for organizations like CareNow and volunteers who came because “I just wanted to help.” Medical care was not the only thing dispensed during the course of those four days at the Sports Arena – there was also an immeasurable amount of compassion.  No prescription is needed for compassion. Come to think of it, compassion may actually be the prescription for this issue . We just need to channel it – with a heavy dose of political will – into eradicating the inequalities that cause thousands of people to line up just for a chance at basic health care.

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