Val Zavala: Tonight we're going to look at health care. Care that many of us take for granted. But it's not a given for two million Angelenos without access to a doctor or dentist. We're going to meet some of them, and see what they have to endure to get a nine-year old boy eyeglasses, or get a painful tooth pulled. And we'll meet a determined group of volunteers who are trying to help them. Correspondent Judy Muller has our story.
Judy Muller: It’s dawn at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and thousands of Angelenos are waiting to get in. But they aren’t here for a sports team or a pop star. Most simply want to see a dentist.
Catherine Joseph: I haven’t been to the dentist in a good while and I need teeth pulled, I need teeth filled. I need the works.
Muller: Catherine Joseph says she just can’t afford dental care. She lost her job as a nurse’s aide with the school district more than a year ago.
Joseph: You have to choose between food and medical care sometime and you have to eat.
Muller: The non-profit organization CareNow has organized a four-day clinic offering dental, vision and some medical care for free. To make sure she got one of the limited number of appointments, Catherine — and many others — spent the night camped outside. When we spoke to her she’d been in line for about 20 hours.
Joseph: This is a really blessing for a lot of people. There are people here with children, all walks of life, things is just hard right now.
Muller: One of those children is nine-year-old Roberto Angeles. Along with his mom and his teddy bear, Roberto spent the night in this lawn chair.
Roberto Angeles Cavero: I woke up really early because the cars...
Muller: But he says it’s worth it, because he is so worried about his eyesight.
Roberto: I have problems with my eyes. I can’t see that much.
Muller: Roberto and his mom live nearby in a neighborhood called the South Figueroa Corridor. Forty percent of households there live below the poverty line, and going to the eye doctor is out of reach for Roberto and his family.
Roberto: I can’t see like far away or letters really close.
Muller: His mother, Maria Cavero is unemployed, and also needs to see a dentist.
Maria Cavero: I’m desperate to go see the dentist and the eye doctor too.
Muller: There was a time when many of the people waiting here would have had more options for dental care. But state cutbacks have gutted programs that provided coverage to poor, elderly, and disabled Californians.
Roger Fieldman/Dental Director, CareNow: Adult Denti-Cal was eliminated two years ago and so many thousands of people who had dental benefits no longer have them.
Muller: The same budget cuts that hit Denti-Cal also targeted state-funded optician services. Since 2009, the state no longer pays for glasses or contact lenses.
Unemployed construction worker Tim Young says he has a hard time seeing in the car.
Tim Young: It’s little blurry right now i mean even on the freeway, far and near, I am having a problem seeing clearly.
Muller: That didn’t stop him from driving here from his home in San Pedro last night. That’s because he really needs the help—both optical and dental. Tim doesn’t smile because of his bad teeth.
Young: If you had one tooth in the front you would feel the same way so I am here to get that fixed.
Muller: But volunteers with CareNow are reminding people that doctors will triage their needs, and they will need to choose one service or the other.
Volunteer: Dentistry or vision are the top two choices. If you need dentistry, make sure you let them know that. You are going to pick one or the other.
Muller: CareNow L.A. will provide services for nearly four thousand people over the course of four days. Wristbands guarantee a place at the clinic so they’re today’s big prize for waiting.
Patricia Hopkins: I got it! I got my band!
Muller: When the day of her appointment dawns, Catherine is back in line early. She’s not taking any chances.
Joseph: I am number one out of all these people!
Muller: She’ll see a healthcare professional who, like all of those here today, is volunteering his time.
Dr. John Tookey/Volunteer Dentist [ speaking to Joseph
]: There you can see the bad tooth. It is unrestorable.
Muller: Semi-retired dentist Dr. John Tookey found a large abscess in Catherine’s mouth.
Tookey [to Joseph
]: The problem is it was so decayed it's kind of breaking into several pieces. That's okay. We just gently do it.
Muller: That’s the source of the pain she says she’s had for a month.
Tookey [to Joseph
]: You did awesome—I didn’t even have to drag you across the room.
Muller: That chance to alleviate pain is what brought Doctors Karen Jung and Sue Jean Park to the clinic.
Dr. Karen Jung//Volunteer Dentist: If I can get someone out of pain in doing something, a procedure like an extraction which takes 20 minutes, that makes me feel good. And the patient feels better, I feel like you really accomplished something.
Muller: But the day isn’t all smiles. There are frustrations for both patients and doctors. Dr. Jung says she sees cases that could easily have been prevented.
Jung: If we could get to certain cases sooner, we could just do a filling. A filling is so much relatively less expensive.
Sue Jean Park/Volunteer Dentist: Right. Preventative versus triage.
Muller: That’s what happened to Yuliana Anis. Although she has health insurance, she still couldn’t afford a root canal. By the time Dr. Jung got to her tooth, it had to be pulled.
Anis: Basically what I need done is about six thousand dollars. And half was covered and half of it not covered.
Muller: But that kind of waiting can be dangerous. Poor dental health can lead to a whole host of medical problems, and, in extreme cases, even death.
The connection between dental health and one's overall health might seem obvious but in fact it’s often overlooked. People who suffer from periodontal or gum disease, for example, are twice as likely to also suffer from coronary artery disease.
All of this leads dental director Roger Fieldman to wonder — what kind of short-sighted public policy eliminates such vital care?
Fieldman: There’s evidence that chronic inflammation of the mouth which occurs if you don’t have your teeth cleaned regularly can contribute to heart disease, it has effects on the vascular system, on the blood vessels, it contributes to plaque on the blood vessels. If you put off dentistry it makes diabetes management much more difficult. Its definitely terrible for your overall health.
Muller: Of course, some people would argue that the government has never paid for their healthcare — they do, by working. But in a state with an unemployment rate hovering around twelve percent, that’s an option many Californians just don’t have.
Young: Construction that’s what I do. It's not there no more.
Muller [to Young]: So it’s not a matter of not wanting to work, it’s a matter of not finding the jobs anymore.
Young: Absolutely. I love to work. I look forward to going to work. But last couple of years there is nothing out there.
Muller: And while there’s been a lot of debate recently about rationing health care, for the patients here, that is no longer an abstract discussion. It’s the reality of their lives.
Muller [to Patricia]: Patricia, you came here today to do what?
Patricia: To get some eyeglasses. I did want to get my gum treatment but you only can pick one.
Muller [to Patricia]: So you picked eyes.
Muller: Patricia is leaving with new glasses. She’ll have to worry about her teeth later.
Muller: Nine-year-old Roberto was able to be examined and choose frames that same day. He’s excited about his new glasses.
Roberto: They gave me a case that’s blue and also three napkins for the glasses.
Muller: Roberto hopes his glasses will help him out with his schoolwork, which hasn’t been going so well.
Roberto: I had problems reading and I think now I am gonna get better.
Muller: His mother wanted to have root canal but was told that was beyond the capabilities of the clinic. So she had the tooth pulled instead.
Cavero: I did need them to finish my root canal along with some fillings, but what they did today is enough.
Muller: Tim found out that the reason he can’t see is a cataract on one eye. Volunteers arrange for him to have surgery later.
Tim also manages to talk his way into the dental chair, where he gets three teeth pulled. Still he says he won’t be giving people a big smile any time soon.
Young: Not yet.
Muller: Tim, Catherine, and the others treated by CareNow leave with information about follow up care. But “following up” may be a challenge. The State of California has just announced plans for still more cuts in Medi-Cal, reducing payments to doctors, and possibly capping the number of patient visits per year to seven. Which pretty much guarantees that – next year – many of these same people will be back, waiting in extraordinary lines for the most ordinary care.
For SoCal Connected, I’m Judy Muller.