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Annual free health clinic in Seattle returns with some changes

Dental chairs line the Exhibition Hall in Seattle Center  for the Seattle/King County Clinic. Dental care is one of the most demanded services at the clinic each year.
Rebekah Way
Dental chairs line the Exhibition Hall in Seattle Center for the Seattle/King County Clinic. Dental care is one of the most demanded services at the clinic each year.

An annual freehealth care clinic has returned to the region and is going on now through Sunday in Seattle Center. 

Seattle's KeyArena had historically been the clinic's home. But when the arena closed for its remodel, the Seattle/King County Clinic's (SKCC) future became unclear. 

The clinic took a break in 2019. Julia Colson, the clinic's project director, said they were searching for a new home.

"When we concluded the 2018 clinic, we didn't know if there was going to be a 2020 clinic," Colson said.

The group was able to keep the clinic on the Seattle Center campus, but its services will be spread through three different buildings: McCaw Hall will host its medical services, the Exhibition Hall beneath the Phelps Center will house dental exams and procedures, and vision services will be in the Cornish Playhouse.

Colson said getting these buildings and figuring out how to operate within them took about a year. The clinic also got a new date after typically taking place in the fall. 

"One of the things that we've learned is there are a number of people in our community who have full-time jobs, are raising families, are working diligently to make ends meet and they're having to make choices about whether to get healthcare, or food, or affording medications," Colson said. 

A number of patients wait until the clinic comes around to get regular checkups, like teeth cleanings and vision exams. Vesper Mikan, who lives in the Central District neighborhood, said this is her third time coming to the clinic.

"Even though I'm on Medicaid, I still can't afford a lot of the services like vision," Mikan said. "So I like to come here every couple years or so and get a new pair of frames, and while I'm here also get some medical work taken care of."

Despite logistical changes, the SKCC still draws people from across the state and even the U.S. That was the case for Kenechukwu, who traveled to the clinic from Irving, Texas. 

"I have a friend that's a nurse who lives in Seattle,” he said. “She let me know about the opportunity."

Kenechukwu came to the clinic for dental care, treatment for knee pain and to get a new glasses prescription for the first time in a few years.

"It's the cost of health care, insurance and coverage, and I'm currently job hunting so I don't have any income at the moment," he said.

Staff at the clinic say that along with the high costs of health care, gaps in insurance coverage also bring many patients to the clinic.

Rayetta Lovett of Auburn returned to the SKCC to replace a removable denture she got during the last clinic. 

"I got a flipper about two years ago, so it's time for a new one. I just got dental coverage. I don't think my insurance would cover it, so yeah it's going to save me a lot of money," she said.

Dr. Rick Arnold is a physician and has been the clinic's medical director for four years. He said these gaps in coverage create challenges for patients.

"Many of the patients who come to the clinic actually do have insurance, they just have inadequate insurance," Arnold said. "They have very high co-pays, or they may have medical insurance but they don't have dental insurance. Or they may not have vision coverage on their insurance package, and the idea of spending $500 or $600 for a prescription for a pair of glasses just becomes prohibitive."

A report showed that about 48 percent of people who went to the Seattle/King County Clinic in 2018 were uninsured, and about 43 percent had insurance. It reached more than 3,000 patients that year. 

The clinic's new layout also presented some challenges, including in the dental facilities. Clinic staff said that when they were in KeyArena, they were able to fit 120 dental chairs for cleanings, exams and other services. By comparison, they were able to fit 87 chairs in Exhibition Hall. But staff said that will not impact how many patients they can serve this year.

Dental care often has been one of the most requested services at the SKCC. On Thursday, the first day of the SKCC, the clinic set aside about 500 tickets for dental care. Staff said all of those tickets had been given out by 9 a.m. Thursday. 

Seattle Center spokesperson Deborah Daoust said the clinic stopped accepting new patients at 2 p.m. Those who were turned away were given return-for-service tickets to access the clinic on Friday. The clinic allots a certain number of tickets for services each day, based on the number of volunteers and providers involved. Many patients arrive the night before the clinic opens each day to wait for tickets, which are distributed at 5 a.m. on a first-come-first-served basis. In the meantime, people are able to wait inside Fisher Pavilion.

According to early numbers, the clinic saw 882 individual patients total during its first day. Daoust said that number is similar to past years, even though the clinic’s patient goals are lower than in previous years due to its new location and other changes.

KNKX's Rebekah Way talks with SKCC about how the clinic came together this year.

Rebekah Way is an on-call news host at KNKX. She began her career in public radio as a news intern at KNKX, where she's also worked as an interim producer and reporter. Rebekah holds a life-long passion for music and also works as a professional musician and educator in the Seattle area.