Mobile Medical Unit Aids Uninsured; Thousands Expected at Group's Visit to Southwestern Virginia

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Thousands of uninsured or underinsured Virginians are expected to line up this weekend for free medical, dental and vision care when the Remote Area Medical (RAM) Volunteer Corps stops off in Wise County in the mountainous southwestern part of the state.

RAM is a nonprofit, volunteer-based relief organization that travels across the impoverished Appalachian regions of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia providing free eye exams and glasses, dental checkups and teeth pulling, medical services, veterinary care and technical and educational assistance.

Wise County residents nine years ago requested that RAM come to the county, and it has visited every year since. This year's event, at the county fairgrounds from July 25 through July 27, is expected to be the largest yet. Last year, 1,377 volunteers gave away more than $1.6 million worth of care to 2,506 patients. Most patients saw more than one doctor, elevating the numbers of patient encounters to 5,616.

I don't know if more people come because the need is getting bigger or if this is a public service people can't afford anymore, said founder Stan Brock. For some people, it's the only doctors they'll see all year.

The Health Wagon in Southwestern Virginia coordinates the RAM excursions in Wise County. More than 1 million people in the state are without health insurance, and the number rises as insurance copays and deductibles increase.

Skyrocketing gas and food prices have also pushed some to drop their health insurance, and they now depend on the free medical services.

Despite constant requests for a RAM visit to the District, local laws - similar to laws in many states - prevent Mr. Brock and his mobile team of licensed doctors from setting up shop. Yet large numbers of city residents need free medical services, he said.

We're reaching the point where we can't do much more, and we keep saying that year after year, said Teresa Gardner, nurse practitioner and executive director of the Health Wagon. Mrs. Gardner predicts even more patients and volunteers will show up this year.

Mr. Brock started RAM in 1985 after living in the Amazon, where outdated care was provided and doctors were 26 days away by foot. His plan was to develop the program in the United States and take it back to the Amazon, but he then realized there was a great need for health services here at home. About 60 percent of his work is in the rural United States, nearly all of it in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, while the rest is overseas.

RAM treated 17,000 patients last year, operating on a $250,000 budget provided entirely by donations. …