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Free Medical Camp Confronts Doctor Shortage in Los Angeles

New America Media, Q&A, Sandip Roy Posted: Aug 14, 2009

The health care debate is not just happening in town halls across the country. Thousands are lining up in Los Angeles for free medical care. Remote Area Medical which has traditionally held medical camps in rural parts of the country brought their services for the first time to California and set up their clinics in Los Angeles at the Forum, where pop-stars like Madonna have held sold-out shows. Stan Brock, founder of Remote Area Medical, talked about what he was seeing with NAM editor Sandip Roy on the radio show Your Call on KALW 91.7 FM.

What are you seeing?

Stan BrockWe started [on Tuesday]. We gave out 1,500 numbers during the night before. And at daybreak, starting at 5:30, we started calling out the numbers and bringing them inside the Forum. We were only able to do half of those people [the first day] because of the shortage of California-licensed practitioners that we had in the building. The turnout the next night was probably bigger than the night before but we were more cautious about bringing in as many people because we still hadnt solved the problem with California licenses to meet the demand.

What do you need to if you are a practitioner with a California license?

At this point just show up with a copy of your license and get ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. The greatest problem we have in the shortage is in the eye department. We need dozens and dozens of optometrists and ophthalmologists and eye technicians, who are trained to refract and determine what the prescription is that the patient needs so we can make them a pair of eyeglasses in our two large mobile eyeglass labs that we hauled across the country from our headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.

What services are you offering?

In dentistry we are pulling out bad teeth and fixing the teeth that can be saved through fillings. We are doing dental hygiene cleaning as well. And then in general medical we have cardiologists here, general practitioners, womens health specialists dealing with things like PAP smears. We are not doing any heavy surgery of course here at the Forum. But we are doing general medical treatment in addition to vision care and dentistry. This is not a health fair, this is actual, real treatment.

Who are the people coming to access your services?

The people are across the board. I have done 776 of these operations. People get the impression that it is for the homeless and it is for the unemployed. Yes, we do have homeless people here, but we also have a large number of patients that have jobs but dont have insurance. Or the insurance they have doesnt include dentistry or vision. Or perhaps the co-pay is more than they can afford. Health care in this country is unfortunately a privilege of the wealthy and the well-insured. Outside of that, unless you are a child where you can access some state and federal program like SCHIP, you cant just afford the system.

Is it a new experience for many of the people in line?

Perhaps here in Los Angeles it is a new experience. We have done over 500 of these events in different parts of the country. People know who we are, RAM as they call us, in the eastern part of the country. Unfortunately, a lot of the people in those parts of the U.S. are dependent on us for their health care. When we are in their town or their village they just plan to come and see us and get their teeth fixed and their eyes checked. Here in California its a new experience. Its the first time RAM has been here but they are out here by the thousands. We just need more volunteers to provide the care, particularly the eye doctors.

Are these people talking about the health care debate going around the country? Do they go to the town halls?

I dont know. But two weekends ago, we saw 2,715 patients in two days. And we had 1,784 volunteers doctors, nurses etc. And it was near Bristol, Tenn. Three days after the event President Obama came down to Bristol, Tenn. and had a town hall meeting with employees of a large grocery chain in Bristol. If he had been brought down there two or three days earlier, just up the road from Bristol, he could have seen thousands of people desperate for care and 1,700 people anxious to provide that care.

This sounds like the Grapes of Wrath.

We are in one of the richest states in the richest country. Yet the WHO lists the U.S. as number 37 in countries that provide care for their citizens. If you are going to get very, very ill in the United States perhaps you need to move to France.

Here in America we have this extraordinary law that a doctor, dentist, nurse, veterinarian, duly trained and licensed in one state, taking the same exams, meeting the same standards, is not allowed to cross state lines and provide free care for people in need. That law needs to be changed and it would be at no cost to the taxpayer. We could have solved the shortage of dentists and eye doctors in Los Angeles if they could have given us a waiver to bring in doctors from outside the state. The only state out of the whole 50 that allows unimpeded access to doctors is Tennessee since they changed the law there in 1995.

Do these various health care plans and options being discussed in Congress address the root cause of the problems of the people lined up outside your doors?

Probably not. If you look at the profile of the 1,500 patients that were standing outside before daybreak you can say they all probably need to see a general medical practitioner about things like diabetes and heart disease but they are there primarily because they need their teeth fixed because they are in agony from bad teeth. They are there primarily to get their vision checked and obtain a pair of eyeglasses so they can get a job and drive more safely. Any program that the government implements here must address vision and dental care, in addition to the general medical issues.

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