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Sign-ups for big L.A. health clinic for uninsured fall short

Care Harbor health clinic
Organizers of the annual Care Harbor free clinic, which will take place Thursday through Sunday, say that only two-thirds of 4,000 available appointments were taken during sign-ups Sunday. Above, the 2012 Care event.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A giant, routinely oversubscribed health clinic for the uninsured and needy at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena failed to fill all of its available appointments during a sign-up event over the weekend, according to organizers.

The annual Care Harbor free clinic, which will take place Thursday through Sunday, had 4,000 available appointments, but only 2,600 were requested — leaving more than a third unclaimed — during sign-ups Sunday.

Several hundred dental appointments, always the biggest draw at the event, remained available as of Tuesday, said Howard Kahn, chief executive of L.A. Care Health Plan, one of the backers of the event.

In recent years, all the available appointments were snapped up in a single day, with dental appointments running out especially fast.

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Officials with Care Harbor said they are trying to determine why sign-ups were down. They will poll people leaving the clinic this week to determine how many have health insurance and how they heard about the event.

Kahn said a number of factors may have contributed to the lower-than-expected turnout last weekend, including the decision to hold sign-ups on a Sunday this year and the hot weather.

But he said he hoped that the expansion of health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act played a role as well, indicating that people who once depended on the clinic for care are now visiting their own doctors.

“You figure we’ve reduced the number of uninsured [in Los Angeles County] by a million people,” he said. “If that’s true, you would hope you’d see some decreased demand.”

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The event — which provides dental, vision and other services as well as outreach about preventive care — has long been seen as a symbol of the shortcomings of the U.S. health system before Obamacare.

This year as in previous years, people have spent the night queued up outside the Sports Arena, hoping to get one of the prized appointment wristbands.

Kahn said that Sunday, however, the line was “less thick” than it had been in the past, with people stacked two deep rather than four or five.

Clinic founder Don Manelli said he doubted the healthcare law had much to do with the turnout Sunday, saying that his organization needed to “analyze our outreach” and that an expansion in clinic capacity, from 3,000 to 4,000 appointments, also may have played a role.

He noted that Obamacare plans don’t provide much coverage for vision and dental services and that it’s estimated that more than 1 million people in L.A. County will remain uninsured after the healthcare reforms are fully in place.

“Our hope always is that one year we’ll make ourselves obsolete,” he said. “But I think we’re a way off from that yet.”

Care Harbor will hold a second round of sign-ups at the Sports Arena, starting at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday. Manelli said he expected the rest of the appointment wristbands to be snatched up quickly.

“I think we’ll have plenty of people there,” he said. “I’m hoping we don’t have too many.”

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eryn.brown@latimes.com

Follow @LATerynbrown for more news about health care.


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