One story that got little attention during Super Bowl weekend was a free healthcare clinic in a rural community attracting thousands of desperate Americans.
Remote Area Medical (RAM) — a group of volunteer practitioners who provide free healthcare in impoverished communities — held their 1,000th free healthcare project in Knoxville, Tennessee between February 1 and February 3. Thousands of people from more than 200 ZIP codes lined up at the Chilhowee Park & Exhibition Center for the chance at receiving free healthcare and veterinary services.
RAM spokesman Robert Lambert told Grit Post that while ticket distribution began at 3 AM on Friday morning, and treatment began at 6 AM, people lined up starting Thursday morning — roughly 24 hours before the first patients were treated. The temperature in Knoxville that weekend was below freezing in the early morning hours.
Even though the group ended up treating more than 1,500 people that weekend, Lambert said that even waiting for hours still doesn’t guarantee treatment due to incredibly high demand.
“[The 24-hour wait] is normal. That’s typical,” Lambert said, adding that many came from out of the state to have a chance of getting free healthcare. “There were people who were unable to receive services due to lack of resources and time, unfortunately.”
Since being founded in 1985, the group has treated roughly 800,000 people around the world, and approximately 80,000 pets. RAM’s volunteers provide dental, vision, and general medical services, and are regularly invited to have free healthcare clinics in communities with high rates of poverty and uninsured residents.
Lambert said most of the people who come are in need of dental and vision care, in which patients can get anything from check-ups and fillings to x-rays and prescription glasses. Volunteer dental and vision practitioners serve up to 20 patients in a day. General medical practitioners, who provide services ranging from women’s health to acupuncture, see up to 30 patients per day.
“Many of the people we serve aren’t offered insurance through their jobs or are unable to get insurance, and people who do have medical insurance, but not dental or vision,” Lambert told Grit Post. “Sometimes they do have comprehensive medical, dental, and vision coverage, but cant afford copays, deductibles. And sometimes their insurance just wont cover what they need.”
While the uninsured rate in America hovers around 8.8 percent, the uninsured rate in Knoxville is around 13.3 percent, according to RAM’s data. Tennessee is one of the states that refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid — which provides low-income families with affordable healthcare — under the Affordable Care Act. As of February 2019, the state still has not expanded Medicaid, which the Chattanooga Times Free Press estimates would benefit 280,000 Tennesseans.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.