They came with rotting teeth, shattered glasses and broken bodies. In the predawn darkness outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena, they lined up last year by the thousands, waiting as the sun burned their backs for healthcare they could not afford.
Many needed more than the volunteer doctors and dentists at the Remote Area Medical clinic could give. When the glasses ran out, they settled for eye exams. Instead of root canals, they got teeth pulled. They pointed to the holes in their smiles with relief. At least the pain had stopped.
Few expected national health reform to help. As they left, they blessed the doctors, even as they wondered where they would go when their health gave out again. Some went on to find jobs with benefits generous enough to heal their whole families. Others were still waiting, more than a year later, for relief.
‘A pyramid of needs’
The 62-year-old arrived at the track early, peering out from behind wire-rim glasses he selected at the Sports Arena. Dedon Kamathi tucked his legs under the metal bleachers and plunged into his routine: a hundred crunches, or “gut busters,” followed by as many pull-ups. Then he padded down to the rubberized lanes of Rancho Cienega Sports Complex for laps, trying to outrun illness.
Kamathi bought health insurance when he worked as a property appraiser, paying about $450 a month. He dropped it 10 years ago when work dried up. After that, healthcare became one long wait.
He does not yet qualify for Medicaid, and must wait three years to qualify for Medicare — longer if lawmakers raise the qualifying age.
Kamathi waited at last year’s clinic for his glasses. He waited again to get a cavity filled. Before he reached the front of the line, the last dentist left. Kamathi has been waiting to see a dentist ever since.
“It’s either do my teeth or pay my rent or buy food,” he said.
He knows he is not alone in making this calculation.
“There’s a pyramid of needs,” he said. “You deal with the ones where it’s: ‘OK, how do I stay alive?’ That’s priority A — stay alive. Priority B is, ‘Can I see; can I walk?’ If I can see, maybe I can get a job.”
Still underemployed, Kamathi waits with growing dread for the healthcare legislation President Obama championed to take effect. He worries that as of 2014, he will have to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. He says he can’t pay either. Maybe if politicians waited at the clinics, they would understand why, he said.
“You see the same lines when there’s a job opening,” he said. “It’s not like people are lazy — there’s no opportunity out there.”
Kamathi paused and surveyed the track. Determined mothers wheeled strollers as middle-aged men and elderly couples followed in their wake. Young women with MP3 players lunged across the infield. He was not the only one trying to outpace illness. At the next free clinic at the Sports Arena on Oct. 20 to 23, he predicted the lines will be longer.
A painful choice
When the dentist pronounced two of Penny Zellman’s molars rotten last spring, the mother of two had to make a painful choice.
She could not afford the full benefits offered by her temporary job as a pharmacy technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital of Orange. Her husband was unemployed. She had only enough money to get one tooth pulled.
She did the math: The right molar would need a costly bridge. She told the dentist to yank the left one.
Zellman, 39, had learned to do without. Before last year’s clinic, she had not seen a doctor in more than three years. She did not have time to see one during the clinic — with more than 6,600 people vying for care, she had to focus on getting her two daughters treated. Afterward, she had some suspicious abdominal bleeding and also thought she might need new glasses, but she figured she could wait to see a doctor.
“I’m just holding on until I get the insurance, hoping and praying,” Zellman said at the time, long brown hair draping her swollen jaw.
Last month, she treated her daughters to a trip to the mall to see “Green Lantern.” They were eating popcorn when she clamped down on a kernel. The pain was sudden, shooting through her jaw. Her right molar had cracked.
Soon after, she found herself in the dentist’s chair again. This time, Zellman did not have to pay: The hospital had hired her permanently in June. Her dental insurance paid for $1,000 of work, including oral surgery. She plans to buy a dental bridge, and to see a doctor soon.
Learning to live with it
Mike Kilgore opened his mouth at the veteran’s dental clinic in North Hills and let his teeth tell his story.
His wisdom teeth were long gone. Kilgore had them removed aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, back when he was in the Navy and didn’t have to worry about health insurance. His front teeth look healthy: They’re capped. He had that done after he was discharged, when he worked a series of lucrative aerospace and building jobs.
The rest of his teeth are pitted with cheap fillings and deepening decay. Three years ago, Kilgore lost his last job. He has been living in an RV in Lancaster, relying on $25 dental putty he buys at Walgreens. It takes a tube of Orajel a day to numb the pain in his mouth.
Kilgore, 53, got two cavities filled at the free clinic last year. But X-rays taken at the veteran’s clinic show he needs multiple root canals.
Root canals cost $700. This spring, the veteran’s clinic started charging $220 just to pull his teeth. That’s a lot for a guy who survives on $1,200 a month in unemployment checks. Veteran’s insurance won’t pay because the decay is not related to his Navy service.
Kilgore propped himself up in the chair and asked the dentist if he could get a root canal for his left molar. He hoped she might make an exception.
“It’s savable, but if I lose it, I can’t eat,” he said.
She referred him to the business office. No exceptions. Kilgore fell back in the chair, resigned. It would be months before he found a free clinic in Pasadena willing to fix the tooth.
“You learn to live with these things,” he said as he left the VA clinic that day. “Pain has become my best friend.”