Thousands Line Up For Free Health Care In L.A.

Thousands of people are lining up for free medical and dental care outside a Los Angeles sports arena this week, at a time when the city's fiscal outlook is bleak, and the regional unemployment rate is the highest in decades.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More than 8,000 people are lining up for free medical care in Los Angeles this week. A clinic has been set up in a sports arena by a group known as Remote Area Medical. It brings volunteer doctors and dentists to people who need them, often in some of the poorest countries around the world.

Well, for the second year in a row, the group has found the need is also great in L.A. as NPR's Ina Jaffe Reports.

INA JAFFE: Rarely do people look forward to going to the dentist. But here at the L.A. Sports Arena, dentists were the most popular people in the room.

Dr. SUMALEE SANKASURASA(ph) (Dentist): When was the last time you went to see a dentist?

Mr. WALTER GERARD: About five years ago.

Dr. SANKASURASA: Okay.

JAFFE: Dentist Sumalee Sankasurasa peered and poked in the mouth of 28-year-old Walter Gerard as he stretched out in a folding dental couch. There were eight long rows of these couches and every one was filled. Some people even had to be rescheduled for another day. So, Gerard was one of the lucky ones.

Dr. SANKASURASA: The hard stuff, can you hear what I'm doing?

Mr. GERARD: Uh-huh.

Dr. SANKASURASA: Okay, that's tartar buildup. So we're going to have to scale those stuff off of your teeth.

JAFFE: Gerard has a job as a security guard, but it doesn't offer insurance. Earlier in the day he made a stop at the vision care clinic here. He showed off his new glasses.

Mr. GERARD: A whole new world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERARD: I guess I had some type of astigma or something and I couldn't see contrast of colors and all that. And driving down the highway missing my exits.

JAFFE: Many people plan to spend the day going from eye care to dental to medical. That's where we met Brian Samiel(ph). He lost his job a year ago and with it his health insurance.

Mr. BRIAN SAMIEL: I am a person that suffers chronic illness, diabetes. I suffer with a bad nerve that is just very painful. And I have a bad ulcer and I also went in depression. Now I heard about this clinic. I am here and I have some hope.

JAFFE: And hope made people patient as they sat calmly on folding chairs and waited for their names to be called. All wore bright orange wristbands. Those were passed out on Sunday and guaranteed admission. Orange for Tuesday, other colors for other days.

Forty six year old Donna Miller came here from Long Beach. She's homeless.

Ms. DONNA MILLER: We stay by the freeway. We stay here, we stay there, we take showers when available. You know, it's been really hard going.

JAFFE: She planned to spend the whole day here getting eyeglasses, visiting the women's clinic and more.

Ms. MILLER: I have an ear infection and I have possible heart disease and I'm here to get that checked because I have 14 grandchildren, I want to be alive to play with them.

JAFFE: Miller had become waiting room buddies with Sheila Minard(ph). She's a cheerful, blonde veteran of the music industry, but now describes her life as going downhill. She's hoping to have her laryngitis taken care of, but that's not her worst problem.

Ms. SHEILA MINARD: I'm going blind. I even looking at you, as close as you are standing here with the microphone, it's a blur. Anything behind you is an absolute blur.

JAFFE: Then she unexpectedly revealed another crisis.

Ms. MINARD: I have recently been raped. And, yeah, I've got bruises all over. This is not a visual kind of thing, right?

JAFFE: No.

Ms. MINARD: Won't bother showing you them.

JAFFE: She did go to the emergency room right after the attack, she says.

Ms. MINARD: All I did was worry about how much the bills were going to be at the hospital.

JAFFE: Today the clinic is passing out wristbands to eager patients for the final days of operation. There were already 100 people lined up to receive them by 6 p.m. yesterday.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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