The moon and stars were still out early Friday and hundreds of people seeking free health care and dental work were already queued up outside the Charleston Area Convention Center.

If you go

What: Free clinic that will offer medical, eye and dental care to those in need.

When: 6 a.m. to noon for medical and eye care. Free dental care will be available from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: Charleston Area Convention Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive (recently named Darius Rucker Boulevard), North Charleston

Parking: Lot E at the Convention Center

Some had driven hours to get to North Charleston. Others left home Thursday night to secure an early spot in line.

Free and discounted services

For more information about health care services in the Lowcountry designed for low-income residents without health insurance, call AccessHealth Tri-County Network, (843) 734-2777, or visit the website,

“We planned to come out here at 4 a.m., but I’m glad we came earlier,” said Donna Whitener, 43, of Ladson.

Whitener, who works for a local insurance agency, said health insurance premiums are too expensive through her employer and she can’t afford the coverage. That’s why she waited so long to see a dentist.

“I’ve got an excruciating toothache,” she said. Whitener hoped to save the tooth, but many others had their teeth pulled at the convention center, which is simultaneously hosting the S.C. Dental Association’s Dental Access Days and S.C. Mission 2013: Lowcountry, a pop-up clinic offering medical and vision care through Saturday afternoon.

All of the services at the convention center are free this weekend — regardless if the patients already have health insurance.

“We’ve been here since 3 a.m.,” said Brian Garris, 48, of Great Falls, located about halfway between Columbia and Charlotte.

Garris said he left home at 11 p.m. Thursday because he needed a tooth pulled.

Patients are not required to show any documentation to qualify for the free care and many who arrived on site Friday morning were uninsured. Services are not available for children.

‘Moral issue’

Some of the patients on Friday had not been seen by a doctor for years, said Mark Dickson, the vice president for mission at Roper St. Francis Healthcare.

“We believe (health care) is a right for all people,” Dickson said. “It’s a signal for what needs to happen long-term, every day of the year.”

Expanding eligibility for the Medicaid program, which provides free health insurance to some low-income South Carolinians, would help accomplish that, he said.

“It’s not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian, moral issue,” Dickson said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has offered to help states pay to expand Medicaid. It would provide health insurance to about 340,000 currently uninsured residents in South Carolina, most of them single, low-income adults. The expansion is only optional and lawmakers here have decided to reject federal money that would fund it.

Tony Keck, who runs the state’s Medicaid agency and opposes expanding the program, said Medicaid doesn’t work well enough to justify spending more money to grow enrollment.

“The best way to get people the help that they need is not to simply blindly expand Medicaid when it’s not working very well, but to focus on delivery system reform,” Keck said. “That’s not the same as implementing Obamacare with no questions asked.”

Keck, based in Columbia, did not attend the free clinic in North Charleston, but employees from the Medicaid agency are on site to enroll patients in the program if they are eligible.

‘Sub-optimal situation’

Charleston-area hospitals, the S.C. Hospital Association and other groups sent volunteers to staff the events. Barry Waldman, vice president of communications at Trident United Way, called the free clinic a “magnificent effort,” but added it is only a “patch” for a health care system that doesn’t serve the community’s poorest residents very well.

“It’s just making the best of a sub-optimal situation,” Waldman said.

Shalama Jackson, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Hospital Association, said providers expect to treat more than 1,000 patients this weekend. The majority will be seen by a dentist, she said, because dental services are not available in hospital emergency rooms.

“We know what will be a huge need,” Jackson said.

There are also gynecologists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and primary care doctors staffing the events.


“I can’t see at all,” said Rhonda Hunter, 45, of Summerville.

Hunter, who is unemployed and has no insurance, needed a new pair of glasses. The event provided a free pair to any patient with vision problems.

“I recall when I had insurance, it was still quite expensive and being unemployed, everything is unaffordable,” she said.

Some volunteers, including a group called AccessHealth Tri-County Network, helped connect patients to free resources in the community that are available year-round.

Angela Davis, 33, of Waterville, Maine, said she is visiting her mother in Jedburg this week and heard about the free events. She needed dental work and has no dental insurance.

“It’s too expensive,” Davis said. “When you find an opportunity like this, you’ve got to take it.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.