Appalachian poor, left out of health debate, seek free care

They arrived at a fairground in a deep corner of Appalachia before daybreak, hundreds of people with throbbing teeth, failing eyes, wheezing lungs. They took a number, sat in the bleachers and waited in the summer heat for their name to be called so they could receive the medical help they can’t get anywhere else.

Among the visitors at the free, once-a-year medical clinic was Lisa Kantsos, whose first stop was the dental tent, a sprawl of tables and chairs where volunteer dentists and students performed cleanings, filled cavities and pulled teeth. After getting a cleaning, she made a stop at a mammography van. Last year, it was free glasses.

“It’s a blessing. It really is,” said Kantsos, a 52-year-old diabetic, “because I don’t have to worry about these things.”

Kantsos and many of the estimated 2,000 others who turned out at the Wise County Fairgrounds in late July are the health care debate’s forgotten.

Even with the passage of “Obamacare” in 2010, they have no insurance because they exist in a desperate in-between zone, unable to afford coverage but ineligible for Medicaid. And because they haven’t benefited from the Affordable Care Act, the debate on Capitol Hill over repealing it has been all but irrelevant to them.

“Whether there was an Affordable Care Act or not, it really hasn’t made any difference for these people,” said Stan Brock, who founded the free traveling Remote Area Medical Clinic in the 1980s.

The need for better, more affordable care around here is undeniable.

The central Appalachian area that includes eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and western Virginia has long been one of the sickest and poorest regions in the country. More recently, it has been ravaged by the decline of coal mining.

“Everything revolved around coal,” said Matt Sutherland, a frequent visitor to the clinic from Castlewood, Virginia. “Now there’s not a lot of work, not a lot for people to do.”

People in central Appalachia are 41 percent more likely to get diabetes and 42 percent more likely to die of heart disease than the rest of the nation, according to a study released in August by the Appalachian Regional Commission and other groups. The study also found that the region’s supply of specialty doctors per 100,000 people is 65 percent lower than in the rest of the nation.

And people from southwestern Virginia die on average 10 years sooner than those from wealthier counties close to Washington, said August Wallmeyer, an author who lobbies the…

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