Friday’s rainy weather didn’t keep away crowds from Cal Expo, where hundreds of uninsured and low-income people lined up for free dental cleanings, eye exams and diabetes care at an indoor megaclinic.
The clinic, hosted by volunteer corps California CareForce, had a small line Friday before the doors opened at 6 a.m., organizers said. Most people in need of services lined up Thursday morning for registration Thursday afternoon, and were given wristbands and a specific time to return Friday. The clinic will also be open Saturday and Sunday.
The event fills a need for people who lack insurance, or who are covered for medical services but not dental and vision services, said Dr. Israel Coutin, medical lead of California CareForce. Since the advent of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the event has been seeing smaller and smaller attendance numbers, he said.
About one in three Californians are enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s version of low-income health plan Medicaid. Just less than 4 million are still uninsured, according to the California Health Care Foundation.
“What Obamacare has done over the course of the years is improved access to health care across the country,” Coutin said. “We don’t have anywhere near the number of people today coming as we did three, five and 10 years ago. ... The trouble is, it’s not adequate enough for most of these folks, so people still come to us.”
Whitney Pierre, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, said she was pleasantly surprised by the short lines at the event – it took her only 30 minutes to get a wristband Thursday. Once there, she waited in a crowd of 100 or so for a dental examination, hoping to get some long-neglected cavities filled. Pierre is enrolled in Medi-Cal but doesn’t have dental or vision coverage, she said.
“It’s a nice idea, but it’s limited in what it can do for you,” she said of the program. “It takes a long time to get into the system, so I haven’t had much done. I’m concerned today about my cavities. The pain isn’t unbearable, but it does make it hard to eat.”
Rick Hoefling, a 64-year-old Air Force veteran who lives out of a van with his service dog OP, arrived early Friday to get X-rays for an aching tooth, which he was relieved to discover did not require drilling. He has insurance through Veterans Affairs, but has trouble accessing everything he needs for his heart condition, arthritis and dental work, he said. When he saw a brochure for the free event, it sounded like the most direct way to get help.
“It was a little bit wet, but we’re used to that,” he said of the morning wait. “At this point I have so many medical conditions going on that I felt I’d already taxed (my insurance). … There are a lot of veterans and there’s a lot of needs. Sometimes it’s hard to make appointments you’ve scheduled when you’re homeless because you basically are living in the moment all the time.”
The event, staffed by about 800 volunteers, hopes to serve about 1,000 people each day, said spokeswoman Krista Bernasconi. Attendees can receive dental exams, cleanings and extractions as well as medical screenings, eye exams, general checkups and diabetes screenings. There is a pharmacy on site and a station for custom-making glasses. On Friday, a volunteer masseuse was in attendance.
Sherry Harris, 54, said she was disappointed that the dentists could not provide her false teeth to replace the four that she lost to decay many years ago. Her part-time maintenance job doesn’t offer her insurance and she hasn’t had medical or dental care since a similar free clinic event a year ago, she said.
“It’s really depressing,” she said of the missing teeth. “I don’t smile as much. I don’t laugh as much. No doctor, no dentist.”