BRISTOL — After providing free health care services in Wise County for 20 years, Remote Area Medical announced Friday that it’s discontinuing its leadership in organizing a free clinic in Wise next year.
Moving forward, it will focus on areas that lack the health care provided by the kinds of organizations and nonprofits that have been active in Wise in recent years, RAM said in a news release.
Although RAM will pull out of Wise, a free clinic will continue to be organized by The Health Wagon, a nonprofit that provides mobile health services to medically underserved communities in Southwest Virginia.
Next year’s free clinic in Wise will be called the Move Mountains Medical Mission and feature the same partners that have been at the RAM clinic, Teresa Tyson, executive director of The Health Wagon, said Friday.
“We will continue to have the same services,” Tyson said. “We actually are going to be adding to the services we’ve had in the past.”
RAM cited community health partners — like The Health Wagon and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s Mission of Mercy — that “have built infrastructure and capacity around eye, dental and medical resources,” in the Wise community.
“Because of this, and because of RAM increasing its number of clinics in surrounding areas, the number of patients served at the Wise, Virginia clinic has declined year-to-year over the past several years. At the same time, RAM continues to receive dozens of clinic requests from communities across the country that, due to capacity, the organization is unable to fulfill,” the release states.
Since 2013, RAM expanded its average number of mobile clinics in the U.S. from 13 a year to more than 60 in 2018. These new clinics have included parts of Southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee.
“We feel it is the best use of RAM’s time and resources to focus on areas that lack the excellent health care that The Health Wagon, Mission of Mercy, and other organizations are able to provide in Wise County,” RAM’s CEO Jeff Eastman said in the release. “We are honored to have worked with The Health Wagon and Mission of Mercy in the past and to have served the Wise community.”
RAM’s most recent clinic took place in late June at the Wise County Fairgrounds. The three-day clinic provided free services to 1,128 individuals, which was about 200 fewer patients than the year before. The clinic serves those who are uninsured, underinsured or lack access to affordable services.
Tyson thanked RAM for its work in Wise County.
“We are honored to have worked with RAM and all the incredible partners who have made the largest health outreach of its kind in the nation possible year after year,” she said in the release. “This is a time of transition and The Health Wagon is planning to continue health outreach annually as the Move Mountains Medical Mission to provide free medical, dental, and vision services to patients in Wise and surrounding regions.”
The transition has been in the works for a number of years, Tyson said in the interview.
“It’s a good thing,” she said, because RAM will be able to focus on more underserved communities.
“We are turning things around here in Southwest Virginia,” Tyson said about the work of The Health Wagon and other groups in the area.
Kaylen Mallard, RAM’s chief development officer, said one of the nonprofit’s goals is to see communities build up local health care resources, like Wise has done, so that those groups can offer a more consistent presence than RAM is able to provide with its clinics, which are just a few days out of the year.
Nevertheless, Wise County and its region still face significant health care challenges.
The 2019 County Health Rankings Report, prepared by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, ranked Wise toward the bottom of the state in terms of health outcomes, at 125 out of 133 localities, and health factors, at 122. “Health outcomes” considers length and quality of life and “health factors” account for health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic conditions and the physical environment.
As a region, Southwest Virginia also struggles with health care affordability, according to survey data released earlier this month by Altarum, a nonprofit research and consulting group. In a survey of Virginia adults, 63% of respondents from the southwest reported experiencing at least one type of health care affordability burden in the past year, which could include being uninsured due to high premium costs, delaying or forgoing care due to cost and struggling to pay medical bills.