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Annual free clinic is a lifeline

Thousands crowd Wise County Fairgrounds looking for help

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Print this page by Robert Burke

A half-hour before sunrise on a Saturday in July there were already hundreds of people lined up at the Wise County Fairgrounds. They weren’t there for the rides or a show, though. They were waiting for a chance to get medical care that they either can’t afford or can’t find in this part of Virginia.

Seeing those lines always leaves Teresa Gardner discouraged, even though she knows why people come. Gardner is executive director of the Health Wagon, a small charity group launched in 1980 to provide free health care to rural communities in Southwest Virginia. The event at the fairgrounds is the annual RAM clinic, organized by Gardner’s group in cooperation with the Tennessee-based Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps.

Many of the people who come have jobs but no insurance, she says. Others have insurance but can’t afford the co-pay or the deductible. Others are just poor, and sick.  “It absolutely breaks my heart to see such need and see how desperate people are,” she says.

Despite Virginia’s standing as a wealthy state — with the sixth-highest median family income in the country — its overall health-care system is “mediocre,” according to a report issued last December by the Virginia Health Reform Initiative Advisory Council, a group created last year by Gov. Bob McDonnell. The RAM clinic shows how much need there is in many areas, Gardner says. “I think you could take this project anywhere. There’s a need across the country for events like this.”

Organizers expected more than 2,500 people to come to this year’s event, seeking medical care along with dental and vision services. All are screened for common chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. Dr. Bill Hazel, Virginia’s secretary of Health and Human Services and an orthopedic surgeon, was among the volunteer staff. This was his second year working at the clinic. “It’s amazing that it has to exist,” he says. “These people that we saw have multiple medical issues that are untreated… you’d think it was a Third World country.”

The event depends on volunteers, and the support of hospitals such as the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, the Norton Community Hospital in Norton and Mountain States Health Alliance, a hospital group based in Johnson City, Tenn. Mountain States sent its HeartCoach, a 40-foot-long RV outfitted with medical equipment, which is able to offer cardiovascular screenings. Hundreds of people helped at the Wise event, held on the weekend of July 22-24. “We work year round to make it happen,” Gardner says.

The RAM group is doing 20 clinics this year, in the U.S. as well as in India, El Salvador and Peru. This is the 12th year for the Wise clinic, launched after Gardner invited the RAM group to come to the region. The RAM organization has another clinic planned in Virginia, at Riverview Elementary School in Grundy in Buchanan County, on Oct. 1-2.

The Health Wagon serves Buchanan, Dickenson Russell and Wise counties. The unemployment rate in the region in June was above the state’s 6.3 percent level, ranging from 6.7 percent in Wise to 9.4 percent in Russell, and health-care coverage is thin. That trend is evident in the state’s overall numbers. According to the 2010 Virginia Health Reform Initiative report, just 37 percent of Virginia’s small employers offered health insurance to their workers, down from 48 percent 10 years earlier.

Mary White, a Dickenson County native who runs a community center there, says there are many employed people in the region who don’t have health coverage. Others who do have coverage can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs. “If you work for a company, you have to pay for part of your health insurance, and a lot of people can’t afford the deductible,” she says. Median household income in the county was $31,877, compared with $59,372 for all of Virginia.

White and her husband, J.R., have depended on the Health Wagon and RAM clinics for help. J.R. White worked as a truck driver for 38 years before being laid off six years ago, his wife says. He’s since developed diabetes and arthritis, and his medicines cost $3,000 a month. He’s now covered by Medicare, but his wife says it took a year to get that coverage. “If it weren’t for the Health Wagon we could not possibly have made it.” 

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