BUENA VISTA, Va. — Many of the hundreds of people gathered on a recent Saturday for a free clinic are exactly the types of people Obamacare is trying to reach — generally poor in pocketbook and in health, who either lack insurance or whose bare-bones policies don’t cover vision or dental care.
Despite an intensive effort by the Obama administration and heavy spending on outreach by the president’s political allies and the health care industry, the 500-plus patients at the massive traveling clinic in Buena Vista are either unaware or unswayed by the law.
“Everybody here shouldn’t be here,” said Rich Bsullak, 51, a patient from nearby Fairfield. “Why are people in the United States in a place like this in the freezing cold?”
The law’s complexity and penalties have perplexed and discouraged many of the people, some who slept in cars to get into the clinic at daybreak.
“I haven’t looked into it. I just keep hearing all the hubbub about it,” said Carla Bible, a 27-year-old uninsured resident of Bedford who was waiting outside. “Usually it’s anti-[Obamacare] — a lot of anti.”
Some of the patients thought the law could be promising. But just weeks before the March 31 deadline for having coverage, they still hadn’t signed up for plans on the federal Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov.
Others said they are among the 400,000 or so Virginians who could benefit if Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, succeeds in his plan to expand Medicaid benefits. He is battling Republicans in the legislature who cite concerns about the cost and doubt the program’s efficacy.
Get a number, get it early
The first cars arrived before midnight on a Friday. Some stayed overnight, parked in a paved lot across from the student activities center at Southern Virginia University. Others gravitated to a heated tent set up nearby.
At 3 a.m., patients warmed by camouflaged hunter jackets, Washington Redskins gear and blankets gathered near the clinic building to take a number from a deli-style dispenser. Tickets in hand, they waited for the doors to open at 6 a.m.
The school’s gymnasium served as an eye clinic, where patients peered at letters 20 feet away and then picked out frames for new eyeglasses. Down the hall, drills whirred as rows of dentists repaired fillings and yanked out hundreds of teeth. In between, patients waited near a small stairway to see the medical doctor, some with mouths full of gauze after their visits at the dental station.
This is how it works at clinics hosted by Remote Area Medical, an organization founded by British-born Stan Brock in 1985 to deliver free health care to those who cannot afford it or access it where they live.
Mr. Brock was inspired to form the organization after he had a medical emergency in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana. Since then, he has been a “24/7” volunteer at the helm of the nonprofit.
The organization relies on $5 and $10 donations and the generosity of medical professionals who volunteer their time and expertise at free clinics in underserved areas from Appalachia to the Pacific Northwest.
The university in Buena Vista hosts a Remote Area Medical clinic every two years. Events in 2010 and 2012 each doled out the equivalent of more than $200,000 in care, said Ryan Sloan, the head student coordinator.