Wise RAM health clinic ends, but need persists

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Print this page by Kate Andrews
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The Health Wagon will take over the annual Wise County
health clinic in July 2020. Photo by Tim Cox

For the past 20 years, the annual Wise County clinic — a city of tents on the county fairgrounds where thousands of people line up every July for free health care — has served as a potent symbol of insurance disparity and poverty.

But in the past two years, the annual number of patients has decreased from more than 2,000 in 2017 to only 1,128 last July. Tennessee-based Remote Area Medical, which has run the pop-up clinic with local partners since 1999, has announced it will not continue next year; that is so it can provide help to communities in greater need.

The Health Wagon, a nonprofit free clinic in Wise, will take over running the annual clinic next July, only with a different name: Move Mountains Medical Mission. Volunteer doctors and nurses will offer medical, dental and vision testing, and local churches and organizations will give away free clothing, school supplies and electric toothbrushes.

With nearly 300,000 more Virginians on Medicaid since January and the creation of more free and sliding-scale clinics in Southwest Virginia, fewer people need to attend the annual clinic. But Health Wagon Executive Director Teresa Tyson says that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a serious need for the annual clinic. 

As an example, Tyson mentions a free-clinic patient who works at a McDonald’s. The patient can’t afford private insurance and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid because she earns $34 over the state limit. Additionally, laid-off employees from companies like the Blackjewel coal mines need free health services.

“We’re really the only option for those patients,” Tyson says.

Also, a shortage of rural dentists means that Southwest Virginia residents continue to need the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s Mission of Mercy project, which brings dentists to the Prior Convocation Center at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise on the same weekend as the three-day Wise clinic. The group has treated more than 24,000 dental patients in Wise since 2000.

Meanwhile, Health Wagon is expanding its regular free-clinic services, including providing ultrasound testing and opening a new clinic just for Medicaid recipients in Coeburn, a town in Wise County.  Tyson also is considering expanding into Kentucky’s coal country, as well as starting mobile cardiac catheterization and endoscopy labs.

“I would love this to be a medical mecca for people to travel to,” she says.

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