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3 days early, thousands line up for a chance at free health care

People headed to the the Los Angeles Sports Arena in South L.A. as early as Saturday night to ensure themselves a spot in line to gain access to a free four-day health care clinic called Care Harbor LA.

The clinic will provide medical, dental and vision care free of charge. It doesn't officially open until Thursday morning, but event organizers distributed wristbands for the event starting early Monday afternoon. Care Harbor LA expects to serve 4,800 people.

By late Monday morning, event organizers estimated that about 3,000 people were in line — with more on the way.

"I always look at it on a very personal level," said Care Harbor president Don Manelli. "When you look at the people in line today, you can understand that. This puts a face on health care in America."

He noted that just over 2 million people in L.A. County have no medical insurance, and he named dental care as the biggest need for folks lined up for Care Harbor's clinic.

"You can make a big societal statement about this, but it's really about individual people," Manelli said. "And the demographic here in line is amazing. There are MBAs and homeless, and everything in between. They're just caught at this point in their life without access to health care."

Howard Kahn, the CEO of L.A. Care, was also present. He said his organization wants to educate patients who attend the clinic about what resources the federal Affordable Care Act will make available to them.

"Health care reform is around the corner, and this is a chance to let these folks – many of whom have never had coverage before – that there's something coming and here's what they need to do in order to get coverage come 18 months, in the beginning of 2014."

Claudia Robledo sat at the front of the line late Monday morning. She began waiting outside the grounds of the sports arena after Saturday's USC football game at the Coliseum, waited through Sunday and remained in her primo spot by 6 o'clock Monday morning.

Robledo was there to get her teeth and vision checked out; she said it'd been about six years since she'd visited an optometrist or dentist.

"I just have a lot of headaches," she said. "And I have a hard time seeing words." As for the dental work, she wants a cleaning and needs some fillings "changed and refilled."

At the very back of the line was Yasheema Adjawa, who drove from Costa Mesa. She said she needs about $4,000 worth of dental work - and added that she hasn't sat in a dentist's chair for any major work in about 30 years.

"Dental care is very, very, very expensive for me because I'm on a fixed income," she said. "And that fixed income does not allow me to pay that kind of money out."

Wendell Augustus waited for his wristband near the line's midpoint late Monday morning.

"Things are very expensive – just going to a regular dental office and to have your vision taken care of," he said. "Stuff costs. And when you're out of work, things combine, hitting you all at once. Any easy way out would help, so if it's free, it's worth my time."

Augustus said he hasn't had a full time job for about three years.

Close to 3,300 volunteers plan to staff the clinic between Thursday and Sunday. It'll operate at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Monday was the only day people could receive the wristbands they'll need to get in; the clinic won't accept walk-ins without them.