A medical relief organization that first served international health-care needs is focusing closer to home on America’s underserved. For some, the free health-care clinic designed to serve thousands of patients in one weekend is a primary source of healthcare.
The Remote Area Medical clinic sets up shop only once a year in Southwest Virginia, but Michele Kokoska is a regular.
“At the moment it is my main source of health care,” said the resident of Coeburn, Virginia.
Veteran patients like Kokoska know to arrive early to be one of about 3,000 patients to receive care. She got the Wise County Fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia, at 7 p.m. on a Thursday to be near the front of the line when volunteers started handing out numbers at 3 the next morning.
Others arrived even earlier.
“Lack of insurance brought me out here today,” said Kokoska.
Although it began as an international relief program, Remote Area Medical (RAM) now also works domestically, traveling across the U.S. to provide comprehensive health care.
For one weekend in July, the Wise County Fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia, are turned into a health-care carnival with participants traveling from all over Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina seeking medical care. Although the Affordable Health Care Act has expanded access to medical care for some, gaps persist.
Glenn Burdick, R.N., a healthcare provider from Front Royal, Virginia, has volunteered at RAM for three years and runs a free clinic in Front Royal. He said he’s seen first-hand the pitfalls of the current health-care system.
“It’s a shame we can’t put politics aside and take care of our people,” he said.
He views the lack of Medicaid expansion in Virginia as a major hurdle to health care access. “If Medicaid had been expanded a good number of folks here today would have been able to access a regular health care provider,” he said.
Medical librarian Rick Wallace from East Tennessee University in Johnson City came to provide consumer health information, handing out fliers on topics like tooth extraction and how to navigate the health care market place.
The “health illiteracy problem in America” is what brought Wallace out to his fourth RAM. Wallace also believes the lack of Medicaid expansion in states like Virginia or his home state of Tennessee keeps access to health care a challenge for the many he refers to as the working poor.
Yet, he is also quick to note that even if these states had expanded Medicaid “there would still be folks that just wouldn’t qualify.”
Kokoska likely falls in that category. She’s employed but lacks health insurance through her employer. “I know a lot of folks who are employed and still without health care,” she said.
But she remains hopeful that sometime soon, with help from her current employer, she will be able to afford regular access to a doctor and other health care providers.
Mary Catherine Kolbert of St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, says there are just too many people who “make too much for government assistance and too little to afford private health care.”
“Folks are choosing between going to the dentist or going to buy groceries,” Kolbert said.
Whitney Mullins of Norton, Virginia, knows that conundrum. She has insurance but would “have to pay for eyeglass frames, and I don’t have the money for that,” she said.
After a day at RAM getting an exam and glasses, she doesn’t have to make the choice, at least for today.
Emily Goldstein, a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was an intern this summer at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.