Closing the health coverage gap, one mobile clinic at a time

By Olivia Hewitt

Six years ago, Marie Shiraki of Buena Vista was self-employed and didn’t have health insurance.

One day, she was volunteering at a mobile health clinic when a fellow volunteer suggested that she should take advantage of the free eye and dental care offered there. She left the clinic that day with her first pair of reading glasses.

This year, Remote Area Medical of Virginia will hold another free clinic at the Knight Sports Arena at Southern Virginia University on March 10 and 11.

Shiraki has twice volunteered with the organization, which is a statewide branch of the national nonprofit agency. The national program began in 1985 to provide free health care in underserved communities.

“There’s a lot of people in the area that don’t have medical care,” she said. “So, this fills that gap.”

Mobile clinics provide needed services 

The clinic has been offered in Buena Vista every other year for about the past 10 years.

All patients at the Buena Vista clinic will receive general medical services, including checking blood pressure and glucose levels to test for diabetes and other conditions. They can also get vision or dental care.

“Typically, they don’t get both services done because typically [the clinic is] very full,” said Victoria Weiss, the president of the Virginia branch of RAM. “They can always come the next day for the thing they didn’t get.”

Patients will not be required to show identification or proof of insurance.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.5 percent of people in Rockbridge County did not have health insurance in 2015, compared to 10.4 percent for Virginia. That figure stood at 10.6 percent for Buena Vista.

People are expected to line up several hours before volunteers begin handing out tickets for entry starting at 3 a.m. each day. The clinic will open at 6 a.m.

The crucial role of volunteers 

In 2016, RAM served over 500 people at its Buena Vista clinic. More than 300 medical professionals and volunteers also took part in the event.

Clayton Trover, the volunteer co-director of the clinic in Buena Vista, said volunteers are so committed to the work that some of them participate in clinics across the state.

“When you work for RAM, you see that there is a need for care, especially in more rural areas and areas that don’t have a lot of access to the medical care that they need,” he said.

The cost for the organization to provide its services at each clinic is $30,000, which RAM Virginia raised. A local host group, comprised of SVU students and others, raised about $10,000 to pay for port-a-potties and lab work processing.

RAM relies on volunteers to staff the clinics to provide medical, dental and vision services. Local professionals are often recruited via phone, email and in person by a volunteer committee.

Those people who want to work as a health care provider at a mobile clinic must have a valid medical license. But anyone can sign up in a non-professional capacity to help direct patients to different stations and distribute food to attendees.

In the past, residents have lined up outside clinics before doors open at 6 a.m. Photo Credit: Dr. Victoria Weiss

Weiss said dental care is the most requested service. Patients can receive cleanings, fillings and extractions of teeth.

“A lot of people don’t have dental insurance,” she said. “Even if they had insurance, they wouldn’t have dental, necessarily.”

For those with vision problems, the clinic also provides eye exams and testing for glaucoma. Attendees can then get prescription glasses, which are made at the clinic while patients wait.

“We have a lab that we bring there that has lenses that are donated and frames that are donated,” Weiss said. “We grind the lenses with a machine on-site. We have thousands of frames that we bring with us, so they can pick out frames.”

This weekend, the organization will also offer a free program aimed at preventing drug overdose emergencies. The training is conducted across Virginia as a way to teach professionals and citizens how to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses heroin and opioid overdoses.

Patients diagnosed with serious conditions are given referrals for specialists and follow-up services.

The Rockbridge Area Health Center will staff a table at the event to register new patients. RAHC, a local nonprofit organization, offers a discount on its services based on a patient’s household size and income.

“A part of our goal is to make sure we provide health care to everybody in our community and provide access to that,” Kelly Balthasar, the support services manager of RAHC, said. “It’s really important to have access to follow-up care.”

This year will be the second time RAHC will have representatives at Buena Vista’s clinic.

“Just to see them get the help that they need and not have to worry about where they are getting the money from for it,” Trover said. “That’s the most rewarding part about it.”