Free health care for the indigent stuck in states’ maze of red tape

By Stan Brock just wants to help. The former co-star of “Wild Kingdom” wants to deliver free medical, dental and vision care to the poor. Whereas most politicians talk about “bending the cost curve” in health care, Brock simply wants to break it — to provide care free of charge, at the hands of unpaid volunteer doctors and dentists using donated equipment.

Brock’s group, Remote Area Medical, wants to bring its services to Washington, D.C. — and soon. He wants his volunteer eye doctors to grind new glasses on the spot for those having trouble seeing.

He wants his dentists to pull rotten teeth and perform root canals in badly neglected mouths. He wants to give checkups and HIV tests to the uninsured and the underinsured — no questions asked.

The only question is whether the bureaucrats will let him do it.

Consistent with its name, Remote Area Medical began in Guyana to serve areas of the Amazon, for which the nearest doctor was in some cases weeks away. But Brock, an Englishman, saw such intense demand in the United States that he started work here in 1992.

Today, the group does about 65 percent of its work in the U.S.

The organization runs on a shoestring budget of about $300,000 and takes no government money. It concentrates its operations in Tennessee for one simple reason: It’s the only state with a full-blown “open borders” policy toward volunteer out-of-state doctors. The obstacles in many other jurisdictions are daunting for an organization that seeks to treat thousands of patients in a short period.

Remote Area Medical’s August event in Los Angeles, for example, served 6,300 patients in eight days, but thousands more were turned away for lack of available doctors.

California’s government was nonetheless inflexible about letting in out-of-state doctors who wanted to work for free.

“We don’t know how well someone may have been trained in Texas or Alaska or somewhere else,” Candis Cohen, spokeswoman for California’s Board of Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. “We have our own standards. They’re quite high.”

Of course, California doctors often train at the same medical schools as doctors in Texas, Alaska and elsewhere. And, as Brock likes to put it, out-of-state lawyers are easily admitted to other states’ bars on a temporary basis, despite dramatic differences in state laws.

Brock insists that, although his group is the only one of its kind in the U.S., dozens of others would materialize if state governments would only adopt more flexible policies.

It would not cost them a dime. In fact, states would save money if Remote Area Medical and others were treating indigent patients.

Despite the setback in California, Brock has high hopes for Washington, D.C. Already, the Board of Nursing has agreed to a “Tennessee-like” standard for nurses from out of state, by which they can simply bring copies of their licenses and begin working. But Remote Area Medical still must convince the boards of Optometry, Dentistry and Medicine.

Their decisions could determine whether it can extend a helping hand to Washington, D.C.’s poor.

David Freddoso is an editorial page staff writer for The Examiner.

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