Documentary sheds light on plight of America's uninsured

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 3/17/17

As a young man, Stan Brock was crushed by a horse while working on a ranch in a remote area of South America. The nearest medical help was 26 days away.

Later in life, Brock told his story to an American astronaut, who replied that the nearest …

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Documentary sheds light on plight of America's uninsured


As a young man, Stan Brock was crushed by a horse while working on a ranch in a remote area of South America. The nearest medical help was 26 days away.

Later in life, Brock told his story to an American astronaut, who replied that the nearest doctor had been only three days away when he was walking on the moon.

“For people that lived in that part of the upper Amazon or even people today here in the United States that cannot afford or have access to health care, they might as well be on the moon for the opportunity that they have,” Brock says in the opening of “Remote Area Medical,” a 2013 documentary now streaming on Netflix.

RAM is the nonprofit founded by Brock in 1985 to bring free medical care to inaccessible regions of the Amazon rainforest. RAM has hosted clinics in the United States since the 1990s.

“What weighs on me is we have people in desperate need within our borders. Remote Area Medical — we don’t have to go too remote,” one volunteer says in the film.

At the time of the documentary, 60 percent of RAM’s volunteer-run mobile clinics were in the United States. More recent news reports on RAM place the number at 90 percent.

According to RAM’s website, the organization has delivered more than $112 million in free health care since its inception. More than 30,000 individuals received care in 2016.

Many of the clinics are held in Tennessee, where RAM is headquartered. In 1997, Brock successfully lobbied to change a state law that prohibited out-of-state doctors from volunteering in the Volunteer State.

Similar laws in other states restrict where RAM can work, though at least 10 have followed Tennessee’s lead with some urging from Brock.

(According to a clinic schedule on RAM’s website, clinics have been held in Alabama on three occasions. The organization was in Ider and Phil Campbell in May 2011, several weeks after the deadly tornado outbreak, and in Birmingham in December 2015.)

The documentary was filmed in April 2012 during a clinic held at Bristol Motor Speedway. Approximately 2,000 patients were seen during a three-day period.

At the time, the Affordable Care Act had been law for two years, but was still over a year away from its disastrous launch. Within two months of the clinic, the Supreme Court would announce a decision that upheld most parts of the ACA but gave states a choice of whether to expand their Medicaid rolls.

President Obama and his landmark health care law are never mentioned in the documentary.

“One of the reasons that we made the film the way we did was because we didn’t want to ask about policy, we didn’t want into go to Tennessee and ask people what they thought about Obama and Obamacare,” filmmaker Jeff Reichert told Newsweek in 2014. “We wanted to just show it’s really hard for people out there and it’s much harder than people think. The people who are having the hardest time look a lot different than I think most would expect.”

The documentary introduces viewers to a number of RAM’s patients.

One woman has a degenerative disease that is slowly rotting away most of her teeth.

She seems to be ashamed of accepting something for nothing and admits to being self-conscious not only about her appearance but also about what the volunteers at the clinic will think. Because she lives in an area where poor dental health is a usually a sign of drug use, she fears they will assume that she is a criminal instead of who she is — a waitress who can’t afford health insurance.

Dentists at the RAM clinic pull several of her teeth, but there is not enough time or dentists on hand to fit her for dentures — her reason for coming to the clinic. She and her husband try to make the best of the situation, but it’s obvious that she is disappointed in the band-aid solution.

“We’re tired of getting our hopes up and nothing happening,” she says about life in general while driving back home.

This week, Walker County lost Hope Clinic, which had provided free health care to uninsured residents since 2006. Ironically, the Affordable Care Act eventually made it impossible to stay open while never adequately addressing the reason such clinics exist.

Now a new national healthcare plan is being debated in Washington. One would hope that as these discussions take place, members of both parties will remember the people who will have to live with the outcome of their decisions.

“These patients are real. Their needs are real. It’s a reminder of the people in America who have no access to the system,” one volunteer says as the documentary comes to a close.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.