KANSAS CITY — Stephanie Cole has been without health insurance since cancer made her so sick that she had to leave her job at a Ford Motor Co. assembly line in Claycomo four years ago.
The 35-year-old from the Kansas City suburb of Independence was among about 1,000 people who signed up for health care Wednesday on the opening day of an event billed as one of the nation's largest free temporary clinics. A similar turnout is expected Thursday as the two-day clinic wraps up at Kansas City's Bartle Hall.
Part of the goal of the Kansas City clinic and similar ones elsewhere is to draw attention to the uninsured as Congress debates health care reform.
"I think it's extremely sad this is the only option so many people have," said Cole, who has received little medical care since learning two years ago that the cancer that started in her lungs was in remission.
Still without work, she also had thyroid problems but can't afford the medicine to treat the condition.
Sitting nearby was Kathleen Shaw, who recently moved in with her parents in Kansas City. The 45-year-old hadn't been to a doctor for two years since she was laid off from her office manager job at a Pasadena, Calif., construction company. Despite two college degrees, she has been unable to find work or health insurance since then.
"People who have health care or money, they forget what it's like to be locked out of the system," said Shaw, who learned her cholesterol was high and was waiting for an EKG test after complaining of heart palpitations. "If they have a broken tooth or an ache or a pain, they can just call their doctor. But if you are locked out of the system, you can't get anything. You have to go around feeling like a charity case all the time."
A sea of red-clad volunteers, numbering more than 1,600, treated the patients in exam rooms sectioned off with blue curtains. The volunteers, among them doctors, nurses and dental professionals, diagnosed a host of life-threatening conditions, including diabetes.
The nonprofit National Association of Free Clinics has put on three other temporary clinics and plans more. A previous one-day-only clinic in Houston drew nearly 1,800 patients, and clinics in New Orleans and Little Rock drew more than 1,000 each.
The group says its efforts are nonpartisan, but they are seen as a way to pressure moderate Democrats into supporting their party's efforts to reform health care. MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann, who has targeted such Democrats — seen as crucial to passage of health care reform — had been urging his viewers to support the association's free clinics.
But Nicole Lamoureux, the Alexandria, Va.-based association's executive director, said that while the clinics highlight the needs of the uninsured to members of Congress, the goal isn't to advocate specific legislation.
"What is important is that ... the people who need the care are the ones that are being looked at and talked about," she said. "We are giving the care to the people who need it right now."