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The New America: Pentagon-Run Annual Health Clinics

We all know that we’re only at the midway point of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and that subsidies for people who don’t get health insurance at work, so they can afford to purchase their own, won’t come around until 2014. And we know that, even after the final implementation, most studies still predict upwards of 20 million uninsured Americans. So the question remains: how do those people, a significant chunk (about 6.7%) of the population, expect to receive health care, now and in the future? One answer is that they have to hope for events like this:

An Air Force dentist pulls teeth in the oil-stained garage where the town’s fire truck normally parks. A reservist in camouflage dispenses free medicine in the police department lobby.

The doctoring Wednesday was part of a military program to provide free health care in poor areas of the South and whose latest mission came to one of Alabama’s most impoverished regions, where the teams have treated more than 12,000 people in less than two weeks. The work helps fill a gap in an area with few doctors and a multitude of medical problems, many of them linked to the obesity that is rampant in the state.

All day, people with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, rotting teeth and failing eyes wait to see doctors, nurses and other uniformed health professionals from the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Navy Reserve at Hayneville City Hall, which has been temporarily converted into a health clinic for the program. Similar clinics set up in Demopolis and Selma have treated thousands more since opening May 1; the temporary program ends Thursday.

I’ve seen some of these types of free health care clinics, though not ones run by the military. And my thoughts always turn from an initial expression of gratitude to shame. How is this acceptable in the richest nation in the world, that we have the military or a charity benefactor come in and treat citizens like they would the residents of a third-world country?

One positive thing I saw at one free health care clinic was an effort to enroll people in a community health center program or some other low- or no-cost operation that would get them consistent care without them having to scour the newspapers to find out when the next free clinic is coming to town. That actually moves toward an enduring solution for a too-large underclass. Events like this are nice but they aren’t sustainable as a way to care for millions of uninsured people. The Pentagon apparently does this annually. People cannot typically time their medical needs with the calendar.

It should strike everyone that an America where this kind of program is the norm is an America whose health care system isn’t working. And the band-aid of a program still in its infancy doesn’t even try to change this outcome for a large number of Americans.

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David Dayen

David Dayen