U.S. Health Care Gets Boost From Charity

"60 Minutes": Remote Area Medical Finds It's Needed In America To Plug Health Insurance Gap

CBS All Access
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This segment was originally broadcast on March 2, 2008. It was updated on July 9, 2008.

One of the decisive issues in the presidential campaign is likely to be health care. Some 47 million Americans have no health insurance, and that's just the start: millions more are underinsured, unable to pay their deductibles or get access to dental care.

Recently, 60 Minutes heard about an American relief organization that airdrops doctors and medicine into the jungles of the Amazon. It's called Remote Area Medical, or "RAM" for short.

As correspondent Scott Pelley first reported last March, Remote Area Medical sets up emergency clinics where the needs are greatest. But these days that's not the Amazon. This charity founded to help people who can't reach medical care finds itself throwing America a lifeline.

In a matter of hours, Remote Area Medical set up its massive clinic, for a weekend, in an exhibit hall in Knoxville, Tenn. Tools for dentists were laid out by the yard, optometrists prepared to make hundreds of pairs of glasses, general medical doctors set up for whatever might come though the door. Nearly everything is donated, and everyone is a volunteer. The care is free. But no one could say how many patients might show up.

The first clue came a little before midnight, when Stan Brock, the founder of Remote Area Medical, opened the gate outside. The clinic wouldn't open for seven hours, but people in pain didn't want to chance being left out. State guardsmen came in for crowd control. They handed out what would become precious slips of paper - numbered tickets to board what amounted to a medical lifeboat.

It was 27 degrees. The young and the old would spend the night in their cars, running the engine for heat, but not much - not at $3 a gallon. At 5 a.m., Pelley took a walk through the parking lot.

"We got up at three o'clock this morning and we got here about four. We've been out where a little while it's cold," Margaret Walls, a hopeful patient from
Tennessee, told Pelley.

"Why did you come so early?" Pelley asked.

"'Cause we wanted to be seen," Walls replied.

Marty Tankersley came with his wife and his daughter, asleep behind the front seats. Tankersley says he drove some 200 miles to get to the clinic and slept in the parking lot for hours.

"Just to have this done?" Pelley asked.

"Yes, sir. I've been in some very excruciating pain," he replied.

Tankersley had an infected tooth that had been killing him for weeks. Most of the people who filled the lot heard about the clinic on the news or by word of mouth, and they came by the hundreds.