RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Kim Fannon was on disability and had no insurance when she went to a Remote Area Medical clinic in southwest Virginia for a free eye exam a few years ago. She said she needed a new pair of glasses.
Instead, doctors noticed swelling behind her eyes and ordered an MRI. It showed that Fannon, 49, had a brain tumor that was later successfully removed.
"If it wasn't for the RAM, I wouldn't be here today," Fannon said.
Now RAM organizers are hoping to help more Virginians without health care. RAM founder and former "Wild Kingdom" TV star Stan Brock announced at the Capitol on Tuesday that his organization is launching a two-year "Stop the Suffering" campaign aimed at providing more free health clinics in Appalachian states. The announcement comes as the General Assembly continues to debate whether to expand Medicaid eligibility. Like most other Southern states, Virginia has thus far rejected expansion.
RAM's multiday clinics in southwest Virginia draw long lines and thousands of low-income residents in need of free dental care, eyeglasses and medical procedures. Originally envisioned as a way to provide free health care to inhabitants of far-flung locales such as the Amazon jungle or sub-Saharan Africa, Brock said his organization now does most of its work in the U.S.
"We were surprised to find that the need here in the United States was just as bad as it is in many of these third-world countries that we go to," Brock said.
Brock said his group is focusing on the Appalachian states of Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia because of high poverty levels in those states.
"The need in these areas is absolutely immense," he said.
Recently elected Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made expanding Medicaid to as many as 400,000 low-income residents his top priority. McAuliffe has argued that the state needs the billions of federal dollars that accompany expansion. The federal government has pledged to pay for the bulk of expansion costs under the Affordable Care Act.
But most Republican lawmakers oppose expansion, saying the state cannot afford the long-term costs of adding so many people to an entitlement program.
The impasse has delayed passage of the state's budget and could lead to a state-government shutdown.
Plans for RAM's expansion in Virginia are still being worked out, including the frequency with which new clinics will be added and the location of a new state office. But Brock said the hope is that the clinics will be plentiful enough that anyone can access one by car.
Part of the expansion is to be funded by an anonymous donor who recently gave the group $785,000, Brock said.
McAuliffe's health secretary was on hand Tuesday to praise RAM and thank Brock for the expansion. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. William A. Hazel Jr. pointed out that many of the Virginians who wait in long lines for RAM's clinics would be covered under an expanded Medicaid program, allowing them to visit primary-care doctors and avoid needing emergency care.
Hazel is an orthopedic surgeon who regularly volunteers at RAM's clinic in southwest Virginia and plans on volunteering again this summer.
"It is one of the more grounding experiences of being secretary," he said.