Maybe one day, we won’t need RAM

Johnson City Press • Nov 7, 2018 at 7:15 AM

Thank goodness America has folks like the volunteers who worked the Rural Area Medical Clinic at the fairground in Gray last weekend.

Over three days, the RAM clinic provided 777 patients with medical, dental and vision services, amounting to an estimated $544,750 in care they otherwise could not afford.

Take Brian Gibson, for example, who received dental and hearing services on Saturday. He told Press Staff Writer Jessica Fuller that without RAM, he would have to go without medical care.

“One trip to the dentist is $800,” Gibson said. “I just can’t afford that.”

Fuller also spoke with Reese Thornton, who brought along his guitar to pass the time and entertain other patients. Thornton said he receives MediCare, but he is only able to get one dental cleaning per year under the program. He also said MediCare won’t cover the cost of his glasses, so he also receives vision care through RAM every year.

“A lot of people, you know, they’re just barely making it,” Thornton said.

We applaud RAM organizers, care providers and support volunteers from churches and other organizations who helped fill the gap for Gibson, Thornton and others who are barely making it.

But why do we still have that gap? Why must the world’s most advanced country have such pop-up free clinics to help the uninsured and underinsured in 2018?

RAM operates more than 60 mobile medical clinics across the country and the world, with the majority occurring in rural U.S. communities. Half of those clinics are in Virginia and Tennessee.

Appalachia is not the inaccessible, vastly underdeveloped region it was a half century ago before the James H. Quillen College of Medicine was established. The resulting medical infrastructure, which includes Quillen’s clinics in several rural outposts, met the goal of improving access to primary care and specialists in the region.

Much of that infrastructure is in danger, however, precisely because the United States cannot get a handle on the exponentially rising costs of health care and affordable access across the socioeconomic spectrum. Costs have forced dozens of rural hospitals to shut down across the nation in recent years. Tennessee has been disproportionately affected with eight closing since 2010.

Ballad’s merger has helped Northeast Tennessee weather the storm for now. The system was even able to live up to its commitment to building a new rural hospital in Unicoi County. But all hospitals and clinics in Tennessee are at risk, and thousands of people remain without coverage.

Regardless of the politics around Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act, it’s clear to us the nation must do better.

Everyone benefits from a healthier society in that prevention and maintenance ultimately affect such areas as workforce readiness, education and other factors in economic well-being. Access to care is an investment.

We look forward to the day pop-up charitable clinics won’t be a necessity, but until then, we are thankful for RAM.

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