Richmond Times-Dispatch | Guest Columnist | Allie Atkeson | Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2014 10:30 pm

In an effort to better understand how low-income, uninsured Virginians access health care, my co-worker and I drove to Wise County in Southwest Virginia last week to volunteer with Remote Area Medical. RAM was started by philanthropist Stan Brock to “prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free quality health care to those who cannot afford it.” RAM — in partnership with the Health Wagon — has a long history of organizing much-needed clinics in Southwest Virginia.

We were joined by more than 1,000 other volunteers, many of whom were from Richmond. The event was held at the Wise County fairgrounds, and volunteers arrived as early as a week in advance to clean barns and horse stalls and set up large tents where Virginians would receive their health care.

When I arrived on Thursday I was assigned the task of sorting needles for dental procedures.

That night, 1,200 people waited in line to receive medical, dental and vision care. The volunteers gathered at the grandstand where we sang “God Bless America” and the national anthem before eating dinner together.

When the clinic started the following day, it could only be described as a war zone.

Thousands rushed into the fairgrounds for their one-day-a-year opportunity to access care. I escorted patients from triage to the various services offered. The majority of patients needed dental care, and the dental operation, put on by the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s Missions of Mercy clinic, was a machine.

Workers quickly triaged patients and assigned them to their care category: cleanings, fillings or extractions. I was surprised at the number of patients with an orange “extractions” band around their wrist — young adults (my own age) looking to have the majority of their teeth removed and replaced with dentures.

When your last resort is sitting under a tent in the rain, mouth wide open to have your teeth pulled, surely this cannot be the best health care system in the world.

The dental situation was the most shocking: 3.8 million Virginians do not have dental insurance, and unfortunately Virginia’s opportunity to expand coverage to up to 400,000 low-income adults will not provide dental coverage.

However, if the General Assembly chooses to accept federal funding to expand our Medicaid program, 2,300 individuals in Wise County and thousands more in Southwest Virginia could access high quality health care year-round outside of the fairgrounds.

I volunteered for several summers down in Louisiana and Mississippi repairing houses and schools after Hurricane Katrina and would also describe the RAM clinic as disaster relief. It’s a different kind of disaster — one that has occurred over a period of time in the form of job loss, high unemployment and now a public health crisis.

I am proud to be a Virginian and am in many ways a product of the state. I was born here, grew up here, attended public school and a public university in the commonwealth.

But while I was in the Wise County fairgrounds escorting my fellow Virginians to receive medical care in a horse stall, it was hard to feel proud.

Remote Area Medical fills a gap that the assembly could have prevented. Virginians deserve better.