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Overwhelming demand for Key Arena clinic shows our ‘broken health care system’

The Seattle/King County Clinic in 2016. (AP)

A huge line of people began forming overnight outside Key Arena, but they weren’t waiting for a concert or some other show. They were waiting for a chance to see a doctor or dentist — for many the first chance in years.

The third-annual Seattle/King County Clinic runs Thursday through Sunday. The clinic will provide free health care to an anticipated 4,000 or more patients who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

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If we don’t come together as a community and value the solution to this problem [of lack of health care], then these are our neighbors and family members who are going be sick and in pain and not know where to get help,” said Seattle Center productions director John Merner.

Merner and another staffer got the idea for a massive free health care clinic after seeing a story on “60 Minutes” about a similar event in Tennessee.

After putting on big productions like Bumbershoot, they figured they could do the same for those in need.

“We really went door-to-door in the medical and dental and vision community looking for partners and seeing who would join us in this effort,” Merner said.

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The response was overwhelming. More than 100 doctors, dentists and other medical providers and companies offered their help, supplies, and other services for free.

They had some idea of the need, but it wasn’t until 4,000 people swarmed the first free clinic two years ago that Merner saw the depths of the health care crisis.

“You tend to think of a free clinic like this as homeless people or addicts. But when we look at these people in line, these are families. These are working poor. These are people with health insurance who can’t afford to use it because the co-pay or out-of-pocket costs are too great,” Merner said.

The scale of the operation is amazing. More than 100 dental and vision stations are set up across the floor of Key Arena, complete with water and power. Everything from X-rays to ultrasounds to portable labs are erected throughout the building.

“All of the luxury suites that most of us never have access to are converted to doctor exam rooms and everything from women’s health to wound care, acupuncture to chiropractic, HIV testing. We have a full medical lab,” he said.

There are also a number of other support services including providers of health insurance, housing, and mental health care.

It’s all staffed by over one thousand volunteers. And it’s all free. The only restriction? The clinic is first come, first served.

The clinic runs through Sunday. People begin lining up at midnight or even earlier to get one of the limited entry passes, which are distributed starting at 5 a.m. each day.

For many, it’ll be the first time in years – if ever – they’ve gotten basic care.

Merner says they’d love to help even more people, but they’re limited by the space and number of volunteers.

Still, over 4,000 people will get badly needed care this week thanks to his willingness to simply ask for help.

“These are our neighbors and these are our families. And we have a broken health care system. And this clinic shows that,” he said.

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