Mass Medical Clinic's Sobering Message For 2 1/2 days in Virginia last month, about 800 doctors, nurses, dentists and optometrists treated 2,700 uninsured and underinsured people from at least 16 different states. No one was asked for an insurance card. There were no copays, and there were no bills. And for many patients, there were no other options.
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Mass Medical Clinic's Sobering Message

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Mass Medical Clinic's Sobering Message

Mass Medical Clinic's Sobering Message

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Ten thousand uninsured and underinsured people are expected to seek free medical, dental and vision care this week at a former basketball arena outside Los Angeles. Volunteer physicians, dentists and eye doctors will treat patients 12 hours a day for 8 days. This temporary clinic is set up by a group called Remote Area Medical.

NPR's Howard Berkes attended the group's last clinic in rural Appalachian Virginia two weeks ago and has this Reporter's Notebook.

HOWARD BERKES: I write and talk for a living, but some of what I saw at the county fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia last month left me wordless. Like the scene at the front gate at precisely 5:34 a.m. Friday - the first day of the Remote Area Medical clinic. Guards had been handing out tickets all night and the line of cars was a mile long. The next car in line would get ticket numbers 1,599 and 1,600 - and they were good for eye care.

Unidentified Woman #1: You got the last two tickets.

Unidentified Woman #2: Last two tickets.

Unidentified Woman #1: For eyes.

BERKES: That stunned the woman behind the wheel. She was speechless at first.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ma'am.

Unidentified Man #1: Ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ma'am, we're trying to tell you what you got.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, I want to give the two eyes back 'cause somebody may need them more than me.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Thank you, ma'am.

BERKES: Somebody may need them more. She figured there was somebody in line behind her more desperate to see an eye doctor right away. The dentists were already booked for the day, so she parked and waited 24 hours for the next round of dental and vision care - and there were plenty desperate to see dentists.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, we've actually gave out all the numbers that we can handle today for dental. Dental services are closed, I'm sorry.

Unidentified Woman #3: You have to come back tomorrow.

BERKES: Everybody who came back was treated during the two-and-a-half days of free care - more than 2,700 were seen overall. But organizers figured hundreds didn't come back, because they couldn't afford the gas or another day paying babysitters or time away from work. In the office above the fairgrounds' entrance, nurse Teresa Gardner of a mobile-free clinic called the Health Wagon told me that many people would probably have to wait a year for care.

Ms. TERESA GARDNER (Nurse): For many patients, I think it is the only answer. It may not be the answer, but it is the only answer.

BERKES: The only answer - I thought about that standing in the busiest place that weekend - the open-air dental pavilion, where more than 70 dentists pulled teeth, filled cavities and performed root canals nonstop, 12-hours-a-day Friday and Saturday, and six hours Sunday. Close to 4,000 teeth ended up in buckets. Some 20-year-olds had every tooth pulled. A 4-year-old had every tooth filled. Out of the hundreds treated, only 11 had dental insurance.

I arrived home from Virginia with a badly infected finger. It was swollen, red and painful. With my insurance card and a $15 co-pay, my doctor took a scalpel to it and sent me to the pharmacy for antibiotics. All that took an hour. That's when these words came to me: I never felt so privileged to have a good job and good insurance and easy access to care without long drives and long nights and a yearlong wait.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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