Free, no-strings-attached dental, vision and general medical care may seem too good to be true, but Remote Area Medical will offer those services at the Camp Jordan Arena in East Ridge on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
"Anything that's good is worth waiting for, so you can probably expect to spend some time waiting to get the care that you've wanted and needed for so long, but can't afford," said Bob Nevil, co-chairman of the Hamilton County/East Ridge RAM Host Group, who has worked to organize two previous clinics in the area.
Often, entire families travel from faraway counties, camp in vehicles and pack coolers with food, if they can afford it, and people start lining up Friday afternoon before the clinic opens on Saturday at 6 a.m. For many, this is their only opportunity to obtain health care.
"Yes, it's being held in Hamilton County, but we're drawing people from two, three, maybe 400 miles away," Nevil said. "Some people just struggle to get enough gas to get here and back."
2012 Hamilton County/East Ridge RAM Clinic
880 patients registered
269 general medical
2012 Hamilton County/Ooltewah RAM Clinic
1,054 Patients Registered
157 General Medical
Data contributed by the Hamilton County/East Ridge RAM Host Group.
There are no insurance or payment requirements, and care is delivered on a first-come, first-served basis but isn't guaranteed, although as many patients as possible will be seen. Numbers are handed out starting at 3 a.m. Saturday.
Nevil, a physical therapist based in Chattanooga, said he was looking for a way to give back to communities in need when he discovered Remote Area Medical, often called RAM, a nonprofit, Tennessee-based corporation that provides no-cost medical care through mobile clinics to underserved, isolated or impoverished communities across the nation.
"I realized right in our own backyard we've got some pretty serious needs," he said, which prompted him to reach out to RAM about hosting a clinic in East Ridge.
Since 2010, RAM has traveled to Hamilton County seven times, with the last time being at Red Bank High School in June.
In 2012, the only other time the clinic visited East Ridge, it served 880 patients and provided $370,879 worth of care. Two years later, another clinic in Ooltewah served 1,054 people with care valued at $538,403.
Tennessee is one of 12 states that allow medical providers licensed in other states to perform charity services, which helps RAM to recruit more outside providers, like the dentists who will travel from Buffalo, N.Y., to volunteer at the East Ridge clinic later this month.
While general medical services, such as diabetic screenings, mammograms and pap smears, are provided, the bulk of the procedures are tooth extractions, eye exams and fillings.
That's because, Nevil said, even with insurance and the Affordable Care Act in place, many patients can't afford dental or vision care.
Research from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute found that 70 percent of Tennesseans, and 86 percent of those who are low income, cited "cost" as the reason for not visiting the dentist more frequently.
"The fact that cost is a huge barrier, especially for low-income adults, is not surprising given that Tennessee does not have dental coverage for adults in its Medicaid program," said Marko Vujicic, chief economist and vice president of the ADA's Health Policy Institute.
Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama don't provide dental benefits to adults on Medicaid, the government insurance program for some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities, and access to eyeglasses is extremely limited. This leaves charity workers and clinics to fill the gaps for uninsured, underinsured and other low-income adults.
Nevil said volunteers and donors from the community play a major role in bringing these much-needed services to the Chattanooga area.
"We've seen, in terms of the Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the outpouring, but this is something latent going on in our community," he said. "People just step forward in terms of helping us."
Randy and Candie Carpenter, owners of Family Concessions, LLC, began donating food to clinic workers after Nevil spoke at an East Ridge Merchants Association meeting several years ago.
"He talked about what they did and how they helped communities," Candie Carpenter said. "So after the meeting was over, Randy just felt like he needed to help them, and so he volunteered to feed the workers."
The Carpenters have donated food to RAM Clinic workers for several years now, and Candie said every year Nevil takes her on a walkthrough of the facility.
"It's just very humbling to see all these people working for free to treat these people that need help, because we take it for granted — we have insurance," Candie said.
Other contributors are Vision Hospitality, which supplies 35 free rooms for two nights to out-of-town health care providers, and The Center For Sports Medicine and Orthopaedics, which provides funds, medical providers and general volunteers. Between 20 and 30 other local entities provide support and resources, according to Nevil.
Those wishing to volunteer or donate can visit ramusa.org.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.