Doubt Obamacare? Take a drive to Wise County
If you're a Washingtonian who doesn't understand why health-care reform is necessary, why not take a weekend trip? Jump in your car and drive southwest 400 miles for a little more than seven hours to Wise, Va., in the heart of the Southwest Virginia coalfields.
At the Wise County fairgrounds, doctors, dentists, nurses and other health-care professionals from the surrounding area will be offering free checkups, outpatient treatment, eyeglasses and dental care to the mountain country poor, many of whom earn minimum wage, are not eligible for Medicaid and can't afford regular health insurance.
The free health event has been organized in the area for the past 11 years by British-born adventurer Stan Brock, a former anaconda wrestler who started the nonprofit Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps. "It does help people who have fallen through the cracks," Frank Kilgore, a social activist and lawyer in nearby St. Paul, told me.
About 3,000 people show up each year for the event, which begins today and runs through Sunday.
They are the core of the Central Appalachian poor, who have worked at Wal-Mart, farmed rocky soil and survived the boom and bust cycle of coal mines. Folks from southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky go to the Wise event. Besides the economic challenges, the up-and-down topography of the region can make a trip to the doctor's office a multi-hour event.
The question is whether so-called Obamacare, which is now law, will make the free health clinic unnecessary. The law is designed to help provide 32 million uninsured Americans with health insurance, in part by requiring everyone to obtain insurance or face a penalty. Low-income people like those who use the Wise clinic will have exchanges available to provide competing plans and subsidies to help pay for them, providing they meet certain income guidelines.
It will take at least a few years to see if the goals of reform can be achieved. Meanwhile, Kilgore says other strategies afoot in the region are to open a medical school in Southwest Virginia that will specialize in training the family and rural practice physicians desperately needed in remote areas like Wise County.
Kilgore is hopeful the medical school approach will further turn things around. "It's pathetic that one of the world's richest countries has this sort of thing going on," he told me.
No argument there.
| July 23, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
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