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Amid Obamacare signup glitches, thousands head to free clinic event

Laws and LegislationAffordable Care Act (Obamacare)Crime, Law and JusticeInsuranceHealthcare Providers

Organizers of a high-profile annual free clinic in Los Angeles that attracts thousands of uninsured and underinsured patients have hoped that improvements in the nation's healthcare system would greatly reduce demand for their services.

The massive Care Harbor event returns to town this week, amid the rollout of new and shifting insurance options for millions of Californians under the Obama administration's overhaul of the healthcare system. Once again, thousands showed up Monday at the Sports Arena to secure appointments for everything from mammograms to teeth cleaning — but with new expectations for the future.

"For many of these folks, we hope it's the last time they're in this line," said Howard A. Kahn, chief executive of the public health plan L.A. Care, which co-sponsors the event.

As they have for several years, dozens of doctors and dentists will be on hand Thursday through Sunday to serve thousands of patients.

Among many of the would-be patients, future insurance coverage was a secondary concern to blurry vision and painful gums.

Los Angeles resident Stanley Lewis, 52, hoped to get a crown; Boyle Heights resident Judy Ramos, 55, wanted to get her teeth fixed and a new pair of glasses. Richard Marcella, a 68-year-old from Lake Los Angeles, was concerned about his hearing and a painful mass that he worried might be cancer.

"You can't tell someone with a decaying tooth that there's anything more important in the moment," L.A. Care's Kahn said.

Many hoping to see a dentist said they had medical coverage through private or public plans, but no dental insurance.

Some without insurance said they tried to go on the state's new insurance website to sign up, but couldn't complete applications because the system wasn't working.

Others said they didn't want to attempt to use the system until any glitches are worked out. A few expressed anger at being compelled to enroll in health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.

"It's unfair, really," said Josh Berg, a 21-year-old actor who was signing up for medical and vision appointments. An Orange County native who said his life in Los Angeles was "just getting going," Berg said he was upset that he would face a fine if he doesn't buy insurance.

Information on insurance options was available for clinic-goers like Berg. Just beyond tables where patients received wristbands that would get them into the clinic, volunteers distributed information about Medi-Cal, Medicare and Covered California, the state's healthcare exchange.

Care Harbor's founder, Don Manelli, said the organization hadn't set any goals for Obamacare signups, but that he believed "a healthy percentage" of attendees would inquire about coverage. In about two weeks, he added, his team would be able to analyze computer records and determine how many people applied for insurance.

Manelli said sign-ups for clinic appointments were "going beautifully." He noted that by Sunday evening, hundreds had lined up to get wristbands. People continued arriving throughout the night, eventually forming a line that stretched around two sides of the arena and doubled back on itself.

At 8 a.m. on the dot Monday, the line — estimated at more than 2,000 men, women and children — jolted into motion. People jumped up from folding chairs and milk crates and quietly began to shuffle toward the appointment area.

By 10:40, the line was all but gone. A few minutes later, patients who had hoped to get dental appointments started being turned away.

"We wanted to come early, but I had work," said Natasha Oiye, 30, of North Hills. "This is so disappointing."

The need for less-expensive cleanings and fillings won't disappear with healthcare reform, organizers said. And despite the high hopes many hold for healthcare reform, they added, many people will still need Care Harbor's medical services.

UC Berkeley researchers have estimated that by 2019, when the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, there will be more than 1 million uninsured people in L.A. County.

eryn.brown@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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