On a muggy Thursday evening at the Wise County Fairgrounds, a growing crowd of hundreds gathers around the fairgrounds, preparing to camp out for a long night ahead. Their reason? They are hoping to be the first ones in line to see a doctor at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic the next day.

The people mostly come from the surrounding Appalachian region—home to some of the poorest in the country—all of them uninsured. The RAM clinic is the one chance they have all year to visit a doctor. About 3,000 people will receive medical attention at this year’s RAM health clinic in Wise County.

RAM clinic at fairground
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People listen to instructions from a RAM employee while waiting for the clinic to open in Chattanooga in 2014.

Receiving Healthcare in Virginia

RAM clinic patients will receive free services that include dental cleanings, fillings and extractions, eye exams and free eyeglasses, diabetic screenings, physicals and women’s services, like mammograms. The traveling health clinic first came to Wise County 20 years ago.

Two lives were saved at the 2015 RAM clinic: one woman from an ectopic pregnancy and another man from a heart attack. Some of the stories heard there ended happily, but most were shameful reminders of Virginia’s unfair healthcare system, a state where Republican legislators refused to expand Medicaid to 400,000 residents.

Accessing Healthcare: Easier Said Than Done

A few years ago, I traveled with a colleague to a RAM clinic in Chattanooga, Tennessee to collect stories for a consumer healthcare non-profit we worked for at the time. We arrived on a Thursday night and spent three sleepless days and nights listening to people’s healthcare stories. We had already heard many experiences people had with our country’s broken healthcare system, but nothing prepared us for the heartbreaking days ahead.

I spoke with a man who waited with his wife while she breathed through an oxygen tank. She had chronic pulmonary disease and this was her one chance to get her yearly physical. She needed an X-ray and her prescriptions updated. They walked into the clinic at 6:00 a.m. and walked out five hours later.

I asked the husband about his wife’s condition. “Not good,” I remember him saying as he shook his head. “Not good at all.” He explained that her X-rays had revealed some spots on her lungs and she would need follow-up care—something they couldn’t afford. Something no one at this clinic could afford.

Another woman was waiting to get her few remaining teeth pulled. “I want them all gone,” she said, adding that she had pulled five on her own earlier that year. “How’d you do that?” I asked. “With a bottle of whiskey and pliers,” she replied.

One man—a small business owner—hiked for two days from Alabama through part of Georgia and to eastern Tennessee to reach the Remote Area Medical clinic.

The man ran a small IT business, but couldn’t afford health insurance on his own. He documented his journey on social media to bring awareness to the issue. “There’s something wrong with having to hike 50 miles just to see a doctor,” he said.

RAM clinic intake
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RAM volunteers perform intake at a clinic in Chattanooga in 2014.

VOTE TO Make Healthcare a Priority in Virginia

Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare will leave 22 million people without healthcare. Trump’s budget also proposes to cut $800 billion from Medicaid nationwide.

And in Virginia, healthcare will be a major issue on November 7 as Virginians vote in state elections. Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie, however, has been dodging healthcare altogether, saying he wants to “focus on state issues.” What could be more important than being able to see a doctor? The Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam, on the other hand, has echoed Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s calls to expand Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians. His efforts were continuously blocked by Republicans in the General Assembly during his term.

As you’re deciding on who to vote for during the November 7 election, make access to healthcare a priority in your decisions.

Every Virginian deserves to see a physician at the office, not the fairground.

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