It’s tragic that free health fairs are needed in America

Events such as those held by Remote Area Medical underscore glaring, heartbreaking gaps in American health coverage.

WISE, Va. — For a man who needed 18 teeth pulled, Daniel Smith was looking chipper.

Anxious, too, for he was facing a pair of forceps. But Smith, 30, a contractor with no health or dental insurance, who hadn’t seen a dentist in more than 20 years, was looking forward to an imminent end to the pain and rot in his mouth.

“I’ve always worked, since I was 14, but I’ve never had dental insurance,” Smith told me. After his teeth are out, he has a lead on low-cost dentures. “I’d like to have a straight smile,” he said. “I’ve never had one in my life.”

All around Smith were uninsured patients receiving free dental or medical care, including dozens in side-by-side dental chairs in the open air. Organizers mercifully arranged the long line of people waiting to have teeth pulled so that they were facing away from those currently enduring extractions.

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The patients swamped the county fairground here for a three-day health extravaganza of free care organized by Remote Area Medical, an aid group that holds these events across the country. This one involved about 1,400 volunteers serving 2,300 men and women who needed care of every kind.

Some patients camped out for three days at the fairground gate before the clinic opened to make sure they would be treated.

The health fair reminded me of scenes I’ve witnessed in refugee camps in South Sudan. But here in America?

The sight is a wrenching reminder of how many Americans slip through the cracks. No other advanced country permits this level of suffering — and if the GOP health-care plan goes through, millions more will lose their health coverage.

“Walking around, listening to people, it breaks your heart,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, whom I encountered on the fairground. “We need a healthy workforce, and this is a disgrace.”

“Shame on us as a nation,” McAuliffe added. “This is an embarrassment to our country.”

That’s what I feel, too: humiliation that Americans need to be rescued by a group originally intended to help people in the world’s poorest countries (mixed with pride at the altruistic spirit that attracted so many volunteers, paying their own expenses to come here). To me, the fundamental lesson is that even under Obamacare, too many people…

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