Free health fair draws 1,500

Consuelo Borroel is a lot like the hundreds of other people who lined up Sunday at Modesto's Hanshaw Middle School for free medical care.

She works but doesn't log enough hours at her cannery job to qualify for health insurance. Her husband, laid off three years ago, doesn't have insurance.

So the Modesto couple, parents of four teenagers, found themselves at the Bi- National Health Fair, where doctors, dentists and chiropractors treated people at no cost.

About 1,500 people came, some lining up as early as 4:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. opening. That number was slightly lower than in past years, but organizers thought that was because of Sunday's early morning rain.

Many don't have health insurance. Others have insurance, but their plans don't cover dental care, eye exams and other services.

"There are also people who have insurance, but who don't have the $500 for the deductible, or they can't afford the co-pay," said Yamilet Valladolid, who works for El Concilio Community Center, which helped organize the event.

El Concilio, a social service agency with branches in Stockton and Modesto, staged the health fair, in its sixth year. Other agencies that participated included Golden Valley Health Centers, the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency and the Tzu Chi Foundation, a worldwide organization with a network of doctors and other medical providers who donate their services.

Keep them out of the ER

The idea is to give people dental checkups and diabetes tests before they end up in the emergency room.

"We want people to learn about health when they're healthy," Valladolid said. "That's key to preventing illness."

It doesn't always work that way. Take Maria Alicia Elenes of Modesto. The 62-year-old said her vision has been blurry at long distances for more than a year.

She spent years working in packing houses and canneries, and now has Medi-Cal, the state insurance program for low-income people. She said the plan she falls under does not cover routine dental and eye care, including examinations for glasses.

"My eyesight is very blurry, very bad," she said. "I need glasses, I know it."

Waiting too long to seek medical care isn't unusual for people who don't have insurance or don't have insurance that meets their needs, said Rick Huang, a Kaiser family practice doctor from Modesto who volunteered at the health fair.

"They wait until they're totally sick," Huang said.

Patients came to Huang on Sunday with a variety of concerns.

"High blood pressure, diabetes, low back pain ... ," he said. "It's just like any typical day at the doctor's office."

For Modesto dentist Linda Chen, the day was anything but typical. It's not every day she performs tooth extractions in a junior high school gymnasium.

Most of her patients Sunday didn't have dental insurance. She cleaned teeth, replaced fillings and, in extreme cases, pulled teeth.

"They've put off going to the dentist," she said.

Insurance too expensive

Maria Altaminano was among those waiting to see a dentist. The 36-year-old mother of three learned about the health fair from a flier her children brought home from Bret Harte Elementary School.

Although Altaminano's husband works and has health insurance, the couple chose not to add her and the children to the plan.

"It costs too much and it doesn't cover enough," she said in Spanish.

Instead, the couple enrolled their kids in the state's Healthy Families insurance program, which covers children from low-income families. Altaminano qualified for Medi-Cal when she was pregnant, under a special program for low-income pregnant women and infants.

Now that her oldest child is 3, she does not have coverage. She's never had her teeth cleaned or her eyes examined.

Her plan in case of a health emergency? Modesto's Golden Valley Health Centers, which charge for medical services based on a patient's ability to pay.

Golden Valley Health Centers also are Borroel's safety net. She suffers from back pain. But that's not her biggest medical issue.

"It's the health insurance," she said in Spanish.

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at or 578-2358.