In Virginia, charity offers health care to needy

Wise (United States) (AFP) - In Wise, a town in rural western Virginia, hundreds of people have lined up at the county fairgrounds for a numbered ticket, some of them 24 hours ahead of time.

Many people, including entire families, camp in tents or cars to be sure not to miss their chance. Traffic police are called in.

Organizers hand out 1,500 golden tickets on the first day, and they expect to give out nearly twice that number by the end of the three-day weekend.

The lucky ticket holders are not waiting for a concert or a show -- they are here for free health care provided by Remote Area Medical (RAM).

The charity relies on donations -- and a network of volunteers that includes hundreds of doctors, dentists and opticians -- to treat people across the United States, many of whom have no other options.

For some, it is their first access to health care in years.

"It is awesome, it truly is," said 27-year-old Patrick Gilly, who came to get several fillings and said he hadn't had any dental treatment since he was 18.

"Everything being so expensive nowadays, I didn’t even want to see how much it was to get a filling at a dentist."

Gilly is one of the lucky ones -- full-mouth extractions are not uncommon for patients with irreparably decayed teeth.

- From 'Wild Kingdom' to medical aid -

British-born Stan Brock founded RAM back in the 1980s, after a colorful career as a rancher in South America and as a star on ‘Wild Kingdom’, a US television nature show.

At first, RAM focused on bringing aid communities to developing countries. But Brock says he gradually came to realize the depth of need in America.

"About 1991, I started to get asked to provide services in places like this, here in the United States," Brock told AFP.

"So we started off very small, just with a couple of dental chairs in the back of a pickup truck. But it grew and grew from there, and today, 80 percent or more of what we do is here in the United States."

It is still dark when Brock arrives at the fairgrounds gate, but hundreds of people have already assembled, tickets in hand.

In his clipped British accent, he starts calling out the numbers, and patients come forward.

Some, such as James Reynolds, are angry with the government for failing to provide adequate care.

“It melts my heart to see these people come together and these doctors volunteer their time to help someone," Reynolds said.

"There’s still people out there that care. But it’s our government that I’m ashamed of… You can’t get help from them, and they won’t even try.”

- US health care debate -

Health care is political in the United States, with deep divisions over President Barack Obama's signature health care law, which has provided insurance for millions of Americans for the first time.

The RAM clinic is no exception, with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe visiting on opening day.

McAuliffe wants to expand the scope of Medicaid, the government health care scheme for low-income Americans and those with disabilities.

Under the Affordable Care Act, often called "Obamacare", the federal government would pay the bill for this expansion, which would give basic medical care to thousands more Virginians, including many being treated by RAM.

In a disagreement mirrored in states across the country, Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature has voted down the move, calling it fiscally irresponsible.

McAuliffe insisted he would find a way around the opposition, though under the state's constitution, the House of Delegates has to approve all state spending, even of funding from the federal government.

- Dental woes -

"We should provide health care, we need to provide health care," he told reporters.

"It is morally, socially the right thing to do, but it is also financially the right thing to do," he said, promising to soon announce plans to close the coverage gap.

Even if government-financed care were expanded, it would not cover most adult dental or eye care, so the need for charities like RAM would continue, experts say.

Terry Dickinson of the Virginia Dental Association called the lack of options "a prime example of why we need a more robust system on the dental side."

Whenever RAM shuts the doors of one of its clinics, hundreds in need will inevitably be turned away. Brock says it’s the worst part of every clinic he runs.

"There are always going to be those mothers holding up their kids on the last day saying, ‘Hey, can you just do one more?’ And the sad reality of the thing is, we just can’t see everybody," he says.

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