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Uninsured Travel from Across US for Free Healthcare from Relief Group Remote Area Medical

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As debate continues in Washington over healthcare reform, thousands of Americans in neighboring Virginia are preparing to line up this weekend to receive free healthcare provided by a relief organization called Remote Area Medical. We speak to the group’s founder, Stan Brock. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As debate continues in Washington over healthcare reform, thousands of Americans in neighboring Virginia are preparing to line up this weekend to receive free healthcare provided by a group called Remote Area Medical.

The charity was originally set up to provide doctors and medicine to isolated communities in the developing world, places like the Amazon jungle, where medical treatment is hard to come by. But the group quickly found itself having to set up in communities across the United States, where medical care is a right millions of Americans cannot afford.

Founded in 1985, Remote Area Medical is a non-profit, volunteer relief corps that provides healthcare free, dental care, eye care, veterinary services, and technical and educational assistance. It’s based in Knoxville, Tennessee, but the group frequently travels to set up relief centers, what’s called “expeditions,” across the country. This weekend they’ll be once again back in Wise County, Virginia.

Stan Brock is the founder of Remote Area Medical, joining us on the phone from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Stan, welcome to Democracy Now! Now, you are the Stan Brock of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, that show that was on Sunday nights for I don’t know how many years?

STAN BROCK: Yes, Sunday evenings, 7:00 p.m., as I recall, on NBC.

AMY GOODMAN: And what brought you from that, and what were you doing there, to founding Remote Area Medical?

STAN BROCK: Well, Remote Area Medical history goes back to many years when I lived in the Upper Amazon, and this is before Wild Kingdom. And I was living with a tribe of Native Americans called the Wapishana Indians, and we were —- well, it was a very remote area on the northern border of Brazil in what used to be British Guiana. I had a nasty accident there with a wild horse. And while I was being pulled out from underneath the horse, one of the Wapishana said, “Well, the nearest doctor is twenty-six days on foot from here.”

It was about that time that I got the idea of bringing those doctors just a little bit closer. And that’s what we did many, many years later when I formed Remote Area Medical, but subsequently found that there were a lot of people like those Wapishanas here in the United States that didn’t have access to healthcare. And so, 64 percent of everything we do is now right here in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what, for example, you’re about to do this weekend, this expedition that you’ve got in Wise, Virginia. In fact, you’re about to start sending off supplies just after we speak.

STAN BROCK: Yeah. Well, it will be the 575th Remote Area Medical expedition. The 574th ended just last Sunday. And we see many, many hundreds and often thousands of people at these operations. In fact, last year at Wise, Virginia, we did 5,586 patient encounters, with 1,584 volunteers in just two-and-a-half days. And to give you some idea of the volume of medical work that goes on in one of these RAM expeditions, we pulled 3,896 bad teeth there last year, but we did save 1,888 teeth by filling them, so that was an improvement over the year before. But -—

AMY GOODMAN: How important is dental for any health plan?

STAN BROCK: Well, that’s a very good question, because even though when you look at the figures at the end of the year, and we see more patients in general medical procedures and consultations, diabetes and heart disease and so on, the dental and vision care are two items that Americans just do not have access to when it comes to affordability in this country. And so, any plan that’s going to provide any type of universal healthcare or partial universal healthcare in this country must address the issue of dental treatment and vision treatment and eyeglasses for adults, because those are the two overriding factors that are bringing people to our clinics: intense pain, so they can’t function, or the inability to be able to read or drive a motorcar or operate machinery, for which they perhaps just simply need a pair of glasses.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about driving cars, what about doctors crossing borders from state to state? How does that work?

STAN BROCK: The greatest impediment to what we do, Amy, at Remote Area Medical is the fact that for some extraordinary reason in this country, a doctor or dentist or nurse or veterinarian licensed in one state, taking essentially the same exams and having the same qualifications, is not allowed to cross state lines to provide free care, except here in the state of Tennessee, where we had the law changed in 1995. And most of the practitioners that work at our clinics here in Tennessee are from other parts of the United States.

There is a huge reservoir of thousands and thousands of willing medical people willing to cross the country at their expense to provide free care for the underserved. And a stroke of the pen allowing doctors to cross state lines by the US government would take care of that, and it would bring access to many, many, many hundreds of thousands of additional people in this country, as long as those doctors are also protected against frivolous lawsuits. Those are the two items that can make a big difference here: doctors crossing state lines, protect them against frivolous lawsuits.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’ve certainly had an effect. Last week on Democracy Now!, we aired an extended interview with the former healthcare executive turned whistleblower Wendell Potter. For years, he served as head of corporate communications. He was the chief spokesperson for CIGNA, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies. I asked him what motivated him to turn from being an industry mouthpiece to speaking out against the health insurance companies he used to work for.

    WENDELL POTTER: I was very isolated, along with most insurance company executives who deal with numbers all the time — profit margins and medical loss ratios and earnings per share and how many millions of members you have, or things like that. It’s just — they’re just numbers. And I didn’t really associate that with real people as much as I should and as much as most insurance company executives should, until I went to visit my relatives in Tennessee.

    And while I was there, I happened to learn about a healthcare expedition that was being held at a nearby town across the state line in Virginia. And I was intrigued, borrowed my dad’s car and drove up to Wise County to see what was going on there. And this expedition was being held at the Wise County fairgrounds, and it was being put on by this group called Remote Area Medical that got its start several years ago taking volunteer doctors from this country to remote villages in South America, where people really don’t have any access to medical care. The founder realized pretty soon, though, that the need in this country is very, very great, and he started holding similar expeditions in rural communities throughout the country. And this one was nearby. I decided to check it out.

    I didn’t have any idea what to expect, but when I walked through the fairground gates, it was just absolutely overwhelming. What I saw were people who were lined up. It was raining that day. They were lined up in the rain by the hundreds, waiting to get care that was being donated by doctors and nurses and dentists and other caregivers, and they were being treated in animal stalls. Volunteers had come to disinfect the animal stalls. They also had set up tents. It looked like a MASH unit. It looked like this could have been something that was happening in a war-torn country, and war refugees were there to get their care. It was just unbelievable, and it just drove it home to me, maybe for the first time, that we were talking about real human beings and not just numbers.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Potter, the former chief spokesperson for CIGNA for years. Stan Brock, your response? He was there where you’re going this weekend, Wise, Virginia, at one of your expeditions.

STAN BROCK: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard from Wendell. He’s called me several times, and he says he’s coming up there this weekend to witness this again. What I would like to suggest is that somebody from the administration, perhaps even President Obama himself — what an opportunity to come to one place where there will be — I’m going to give out 1,500 numbers every morning starting Friday and Saturday of this weekend. You’re going to have thousands of patients all gathered in one place. You’re going to have over 1,500 volunteers, doctors and support workers all in one place. What an opportunity to ask these people about their lives and what they need and their aspirations. But, unfortunately, so far, nobody seems to be taking notice of this. And we’ve done 574 of these opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: People come to Virginia as far as Florida and Tennessee to be treated?

STAN BROCK: Oh, oh, yes, yes. They’re coming from hundreds of miles around. And, in fact, we frequently get people that come all the way from Florida. We’ve had people come all the way from places like Wisconsin, because it’s cheaper to get on Greyhound or even buy an airline ticket and come down and get what might have been $4,000 or $5,000 worth of care taken care of free of charge.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Stan, for those people who are just tuning in and may recognize your voice, again, you were one of the co-hosts of the show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This is a clip of you battling an anaconda with your co-host Marlin Perkins.

    STAN BROCK: His great strength seems multiplied in water. What a tremendously effective fighter he is, always on the offensive. He’s got Marlin!

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Wild Kingdom, and that was you, Stan Brock, in the water. They said, “What an effective fighter he is.” They were talking about the anaconda, right? You were talking about the anaconda, not yourself, but I think it could describe you. Now you’re living, no salary, in Knoxville in an abandoned school where Remote Area Medical is based?

STAN BROCK: That’s correct. But that’s not important, really. You know, life is like a shark. You have to keep swimming to stay alive.

AMY GOODMAN: And the budget of Remote Area Medical now per year?

STAN BROCK: Well, we don’t have a budget, per se. We don’t owe anybody any money. We don’t take any money from the state or the federal government, and would not do so. We operate within our means. We buy equipment when we can afford it. And fortunately, our costs of providing care are extremely low because of all of the volunteer base and the fact that people pay their own expenses to get to these places. One of our biggest expenses, of course, is fuel, fuel for trucks and fuel for airplanes that we have to use. And so, we really need — we could use a large oil company as a sponsor.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to help, doctors, nurses, if people want to help in any way, where do they go online, for example?

STAN BROCK: Our website is very simple. It’s

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Remote Area Medical USA dot org, Stan Brock, thanks so much for being with us. Good luck in your next expedition this weekend in Wise, Virginia. Yes, Stan Brock, formerly with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, now founder of this organization that’s spent a lot of time around the world helping people who don’t have access to medicine, now focusing right here in the United States. It’s called Remote Area Medical.

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