The line started at 5:30 a.m. April 13 for the Central County Health Expo, where more than 1,000 uninsured and underinsured patients received free medical, dental and eye care, including free prescription glasses.

The sprawling two-day expo on the campus of Santa Ana High School was organized by the Illumination Foundation and relied on more than 700 volunteers.

“Patients are primarily not the homeless but mostly working poor, people who are a step above homelessness,” said Katie Rootlieb, director of communications and development at the foundation. “Vision is always the biggest draw,” she said, particularly since adult patients with Medi-Cal, the state’s insurance plan for low-income and disabled people, are no longer covered for eyeglasses.

This was the situation for Carmen Chavez of Santa Ana, a Medi-Cal patient who waited in line at a school auditorium to see an optometrist and get new glasses.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Chavez, who also planned to visit one of the dentists at the expo.

A key advantage of the health expo is it makes medical services more accessible to working people, especially parents who can’t always take their children to doctors’ offices during the week, said Dr. Charles Dominguez, a physician volunteer from Lake Forest.

A case in point was Nicacia Torres, who said she has a hard time getting away from her dishwashing job on weekdays to deal with her vision problem. Uninsured and unable to see at a distance, she was looking forward to getting glasses for the first time ever on Saturday.

The doctors and nurses were busy giving exams and renewing prescriptions, while dentists filled cavities and extracted teeth. Bilingual doctors and Spanish and Vietnamese translators were also on hand, Rootlieb said.

Foundation CEO Paul Leon deemed the event a success, saying organizers were determined not just to perform screenings but to provide treatment on-site. However, he said, the Illumination Foundation needs more partners to help organize future expos, which cost about $30,000 to run.

The expos are not actually the foundation’s core mission, which is assisting homeless families, he said.

“We’re thinking other nonprofits are more qualified to do this,” he said.

One key goal of the expo was not just to treat patients on-site but to help them find long-term medical care, which experts refer to as a “medical home.” But referring patients to community clinics, the county’s safety net for low-income medical care, is increasingly difficult.

The clinics are already crowded, Rootlieb said, and may become more so when Medi-Cal enrollments rise in 2014 as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. “There are long waiting lists, and it’s hard to get appointments,” she said. “Community clinics are overwhelmed and will be more overwhelmed in 2014.”

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine literary journalism program. You can reach her directly at

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