Faculty and students at the USC Keck School of Medicine and the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry partnered with volunteers to staff a free health clinic held Thursday through Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Each year, the clinic provides medical, dental and vision services at no charge over four days for thousands of underinsured people from across Southern California.
Staffed entirely by about 3,250 volunteers, the clinic is hosted by Care Harbor, a non-profit, Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to providing care for the nearly 2.5 million underinsured residents.
Last year, the clinic served some 3,000 people. Now in its fourth year of operation, the clinic aims to expand to reach even more patients.
Hopeful L.A. residents lined up for hours — even days in some cases — to wait for one of the 4,800 wristbands handed out Monday that guaranteed them an appointment at this weekend’s clinic.
Sonja Partner was one of the lucky patients who received a wristband after she waited for 18 hours.
“I went to a dentist two months ago and he charged me $4,000,” Partner said as she waited in line for a prosthetic dental treatment at the clinic. “I just can’t afford that.”
Michael Cousineau, a research associate professor of preventive medicine at Keck, said that the need for dental care at this clinic has increased, even over last year.
“A lot of people have health insurance but don’t have dental coverage,” Cousineau said. “They put off dental care until things get very bad and then they come to these clinics.”
In order to help alleviate the problem, students from the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry packed up their mobile clinic — a specialized RV with surgical chairs and dental supplies, and set up at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Not only does the mobile clinic provide free extractions, fillings and root canals for needy patients, it also helps USC dental students gain clinical experience.
Sumeet Srivastava, a fourth-year student at Ostrow, is one of about 20 students volunteering at the clinic.
“The greatest part about doing this is that the patients can walk away pain-free,” Srivastava said. “They are always very thankful.”
Glenn Ault, an associate dean at Keck, coordinated USC’s effort to help at the clinic this year and last.
“USC and the Keck School of Medicine have long been associated with the mission of caring for indigent and underserved people because our affiliation with the L.A. County/USC Medical Center,” Ault said. “We have long had that tradition. It’s in our blood.”
Ault has organized more than 100 Keck faculty and medical students to volunteer. While faculty specialists in fields like gynecology, optometry and pediatrics are directly providing services for patients, Keck students are taking vital signs and assisting the physicians at the clinic.
Laila Muderspach is the chair of Keck’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In her second year volunteering at the clinic, Muderspach is conducting routine pap smears and administering medications for urinary tract infections, among other services.
“Most of the people who come through here fall into the gaps between the ages that qualify for health care,” Muderspach explained.
Some patients have an even harder battle; Thursday, she treated an unemployed mother of a two-year-old child.
“It was really touching to see someone like that who has made the choice for herself and for her family to take control of her health,” Muderspach said.
Care Harbor does not only provide free health services at the clinic itself — it also works to ensure that the patients who pass through the clinic are set up with adequate follow-up care.
Though the free clinic temporarily alleviates some of the strain on underinsured residents, it barely scratches the surface of Los Angeles’ widespread health concerns.
“More than 2 million L.A. residents are underinsured, and we estimate that 700,000 of those are children,” Cousineu said. “That’s one of the highest rates of underinsured people in the nation. That puts a huge burden on the community as there are a large number of people who don’t have access to care.”
Cousineau said that the situation will improve as more components of the recent Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, takes effect within the next few years. He insists that a solution to Los Angeles’ major health concerns requires ensuring access to neighborhood health care services and expanding the work force for primary care.
Ault is hopeful that the clinic will do much good for the lucky 4,800 patients who got wristbands.
“This is an opportunity to provide people with much-needed care and to get them into a healthcare program they qualify for,” Ault said. “It was amazing to see the thousands of people last year who came through the clinic — we were able to help those people get the care they needed.”