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Bringing health care to the underserved: A weekend in Wise, Virginia

October 12, 2018 | Health Equity


On a scorching day in July, Larry walked 30 miles in 90-degree heat to Wise, Virginia, just to get basic dental services — and he was grateful for that opportunity.

If it wasn’t for the clinic provided by Remote Area Medical (RAM), he wouldn’t be able to get health care of any kind.

Unfortunately, Larry’s story is not unique. Every year, nearly 1,300 individuals travel to Wise to access free, high quality services offered through RAM, a non-profit provider of mobile medical clinics for underserved and uninsured populations. RAM provides patients with dental, vision and medical services, ranging from dental extractions and mental health screenings to women’s health exams.

For the last 19 years, RAM has operated clinics at the Wise County Fairgrounds, oftentimes, providing Wise and surrounding communities with the only health care they’ll receive all year. Leading up to the three-day event, volunteers transform barns into exam rooms and cars fill the massive empty field. An event of this scale and scope requires months of planning, experienced volunteers from a range of medical professions and public-private collaboration.

Aetna previously supported RAM, but deepened its commitment this year as a major sponsor. The Aetna Foundation contributed $40,000 to the Health Wagon, RAM’s local community partner. Working with Feeding America Southwest Virginia, Community Activation and Local Marketing, Aetna Better Health of Virginia, Capitol Market and National Accounts teams contributed $26,500 to fund food boxes packed with healthy, non-perishable items for RAM attendees.

Aetna’s participation in the Wise event reflects the company’s strategy in action. Aetna knows that social determinants of health, like where someone lives, have a significant impact on their health. And when someone lives in a remote area like Wise, accessing quality health care and healthy food can be a challenge.

“There’s affluence and wealth in many of our communities in the Capitol Market but southwest Virginia stands out,” said Mike Bucci, president of Capitol Market. “It’s an area devastated by a lack of jobs and there is a great need for basic things like food, clothing and health care. It made sense for us to invest time, talent and resources from across Aetna to make a meaningful difference in this area.”

In just one weekend, RAM clinicians provided 1,349 patients with nearly $750,000 in free medical, dental and vision services.

In addition, nearly 30 Aetna volunteers from across the country and several lines of business provided on-site support at the Aetna tent.

From 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., they distributed 1,500 food boxes along with information on healthy eating and Medicaid services. A few volunteers also managed the registration process to help ensure patients were triaged in a timely manner.

“The people of Wise have more heart and hope… despite their lack of access to jobs, health care and other resources that are readily available to many of us,” said Aetna volunteer Leila Nowroozi. “In three days at Wise, I encountered virtually every chronic medical condition currently plaguing our nation.”

Even though the RAM clinic is over, the work is just beginning. Looking ahead, Health Wagon will follow up with every single patient throughout the year and connect them to local resources and quality health care.