In the wee hours of July 21, the parking lot of a county fairground in Wise, Va., was packed with families sleeping in their cars or in makeshift beds tucked between vehicles. They were camping out not for coveted tickets to a concert but for entry to a massive free medical and dental clinic. Volunteers began handing out numbers for admission at 3 a.m. The best chance for getting in when the doors opened a few hours later was to be there in the middle of the night.
The annual event is run by Remote Area Medical (RAM), a global nonprofit that conducts what it calls expeditions in areas around the world that are in desperate need of basic care, including more than a dozen locations in the U.S. A legion of volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists and helpers converged on the little Appalachian town of Wise for three days to treat about 2,000 people.
Some patients have been in excruciating pain from infected teeth for months, waiting for RAM to arrive. Others are in urgent need of diagnostic tests. Most of the patients are among the nation’s more than 29 million uninsured. “These are your neighbors, your favorite waitresses, your kids’ teachers,” says Jeff Eastman, RAM’s CEO. In many areas, people on Medicaid have a hard time finding providers who will take the low reimbursements for treatments like root canals–without which minor health problems can turn into major risks.
It’s a slow-boiling catastrophe that may yet get worse as the full Senate considers various health care measures that could push millions more people off insurance. “It’s life or death for them,” says Teresa Gardner Tyson, executive director of the Health Wagon, a local nonprofit that works with RAM. “These politicians need to come here and see what we see.” Tyson says she has had diabetic patients who have lost their vision for lack of a few hundred dollars to pay for insulin—-a situation that ends up costing more in the long run. “The system will pay for it either way,” she says, “so why not do the right thing and get them treatment in the first place?”
This appears in the August 07, 2017 issue of TIME.