INGLEWOOD, California (Reuters) - Inside an aging sports arena, where rows of dental chairs and a hospital smell have replaced the former Los Angeles Lakers basketball court, thousands of Americans are seeking free healthcare.
Hundreds were turned away just on Tuesday, the first day of a weeklong clinic run by the nonprofit Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corp as part of its mission to provide free health, dental and eye care in needy spots around the world.
It marks the first time in RAM’s 25 years that it has gone to a major U.S. metropolitan area -- a reminder that even in Los Angeles, with world-class doctors and hospitals, many do not have access to affordable healthcare.
RAM is apolitical, but its mobile medical center has sprung up in the working-class LA suburb of Inglewood against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter public debate over President Barack Obama’s proposed overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.
Its organizers, including founder Stan Brock, have steered clear of the healthcare battle in Washington, which centers on Obama’s pledge to provide for the nearly 46 million uninsured Americans and charges by conservatives that he will only make the situation worse by “socializing” medicine.
Brock said he started RAM, which is best-known for its work in Third World countries, to provide healthcare in remote parts of the world where people have no access to doctors and medical supplies.
His mobile clinics are not seen as a solution to America’s complex healthcare issues but the turnout in Inglewood has offered a glimpse into the depth of the problem.
Obama’s political allies, who have seen his fellow Democrats confronted by angry constituents at “town hall” meetings, seized on the RAM event as an opportunity to plug the president’s $1 trillion plan.
“There are a lot of town halls going on across America but you know, I‘m going to have another story to tell when I get back to Washington, D.C. It will be about what happened here in Inglewood,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat who has pushed hard for Obama’s reforms, told a news conference on the sidelines of the opening day.
Some 8,000 people were expected to file through the Forum sports arena for everything from Pap smears to acupuncture to eyeglass fittings.
“It certainly proves that here in the inner city healthcare is needed in the worst way,” Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn said. “If that doesn’t send a message across America, I don’t know what will.”
Ayana Kleckner, 15, was chipper despite spending the night in line outside to get one of the 1,500 appointments available on Tuesday. She managed only two hours of sleep in a sleeping bag on the cold sidewalk.
Ayana saw her mother Elon Kleckner have a painful abscessed tooth removed during surgery in a dental chair. The high-school student was cheerfully eating an apple after her first teeth cleaning in five years.
“This is a miracle, but people shouldn’t have to sleep on the street to get medical care,” Ayana said while waiting for an eye exam. “It was adventurous, if you could put it that way, but I don’t think I should have to go through that to make sure I‘m healthy.”
Elon Kleckner, who declined to give her age, said she had lost her sales job several months ago but did not have medical insurance even when she was working and had not been to a doctor in years.
“If everybody in this country were in the situation my daughter and I are in, they would have a whole different view of (the healthcare debate),” Kleckner said, speaking through a sore mouth stuffed with cotton.
On the other side of the hall, 83-year-old Ethel Nabors, who has been without teeth for some five years, had just been told after a nine-hour wait that the clinic could not provide her with a new set of false teeth.
But Nabors shrugged off the bad luck as she sat in an old Lakers chair to see if a volunteer could realign her dentures, which she had brought with her in a paper sack.
“I didn’t live this long by fretting about everything,” she said. “I pray for patience. I’ve made it this far. If it’s meant for me to have a new pair of teeth then I’ll get them one way or the other.”
Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller