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The Nevada Independent

A free health clinic at a Pahrump school closes access gap, renews hope for practitioners

Patients lined up in parked cars a day before the clinic opened to reserve a spot. Many were there for dental or vision services not covered by insurance.
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
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On a recent Saturday, a Pahrump Valley High School building typically used for alternative education programs was converted into a robust medical facility that included a check-in table, triage center, about 20 dental chairs, a dark room for eye exams and a women’s clinic. 

Patients lined up early in the morning for free medical services at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) pop-up clinic after camping out in tents, cars and recreational vehicles in the parking lot.

Among them were Destiny, 26, and her boyfriend Ryan, 24, who — like some other attendees — asked that their last names not be used. They are expecting a baby boy in a few weeks and wanted to take advantage of the clinic’s free dental services in their community because Ryan was experiencing tooth pain.

He told The Nevada Independent that the service will alleviate the stress he was experiencing. Destiny said they tried to book discounted dental services at UNLV, but there were no appointments available until January.

RAM — a Tennessee-based nonprofit that works nationwide and relies on health care workers who volunteer their time — was started in 1985 to address health care shortages and to provide quality service to underserved communities and people who are uninsured. John Volpe, the chief development officer of RAM, said the organization gets about 300 requests a year from groups across the country to co-host pop-up clinics in areas in need.

“You can throw a dart anywhere in the United States and the need is there,” he said at the clinic.

The nonprofit Nye County Communities Coalition hosted the pop-up clinic with RAM at no cost to patients. Ryan Muccio, co-chair of the coalition, said the service cuts through the bureaucracy and anxiety around insurance authorizations that stresses providers and patients. 

Muccio said for the last eight years, doctors, dentists, optometrists, psychiatrists, emergency medical technicians and nurses have run the clinic in Pahrump annually as volunteers, serving about 300 to 400 patients in two and a half days. He said participants do not have to bring identification or share who they are to get service, and that providers get a renewed sense of hope and passion from volunteering.

“They just get to come here and practice medicine and serve people,” Muccio said. “It really resets and fills people's cups. A lot of volunteers say they come here to refill their passion cup every year.”  

Muccio said people started lining up for the clinic at noon the day before; they included locals from Pahrump and Las Vegas and people passing through the state. The offerings included medical checkups but many people were there for vision and dental treatment — patients had to choose between dental or vision services because of the high demand. 

Many insurance options, including some programs with Medicaid and Medicare, do not offer dental and vision coverage.

Patients could leave the clinic with eyeglasses that were made on-site, get a crown, filling or tooth pulled, receive a flu vaccine, undergo a cervical cancer screening or take home a voucher for free or discounted medication. Clinic volunteers also gave out vouchers for free mammograms.

“It's a blessing,” said Vicky, 68, a retiree who came to have a filling repaired. “A lot of us don't have insurance and we live on a fixed income.”

She said she is a part of a community of “snowbirds” who come to the RAM clinic every year. The group lives and travels in RVs without a home base.

The clinic also served prisoners from the Pahrump-based Nevada Southern Detention Center, who remained chained at the ankles and in handcuffs during dental procedures and under police supervision. Inmates were also able to volunteer to help set up and break down the clinic.

“There's actually some people who helped volunteer in that capacity in years past, that actually are here volunteering now, now that they're out [of prison],” said Ronnie Hatfield, the senior volunteer coordinator.

The clinic held earlier this month included 217 volunteers from Nevada. 

Alex Phipps, the media specialist for RAM, said each clinic includes specialty doctors, such as psychiatrists, pediatricians or podiatrists, and that the mix of services depends on the providers who sign up.

Kathie McKenna said the organization hopes to get a local optometrist to donate time for the Pahrump clinic.

“We have no optometrists that come from Pahrump or Las Vegas,” McKenna said. “The gentleman that's here … he's from Arizona.”

Colleges also get involved, with UNLV’s dental school bringing as many as 30 students. There were also two UNLV dental professors, who led the dental treatment area.

Dentist Michael Sherman, a UNLV professor, said it was his third time helping patients through RAM. 

“This is a way that you can take care of at least one or two immediate needs without having dental benefits,” he said.

The clinic also recently started offering dentures to patients – though only one dentist is providing the service so it’s limited — and they are hoping to expand that service with a mobile denture unit.

Sherman said many insurance plans leave out dental coverage because people can live without teeth. But he said maintaining a clean mouth is crucial to a person’s overall health because oral bacteria buildup can overwork the body, making it more of a challenge for the immune system to fight colds or viruses.

“The toughest thing about this is that there really is no follow-up and of course, we encourage them to do that,” Sherman said. “But we understand that it's difficult.”

Seeing specialists as a family

Twenty-nine-year-old Dalia was one of 373 patients who went to the pop-up health clinic in Pahrump. She said she has post-traumatic stress disorder with hospitals after doctors failed to diagnose her newborn, who later died from a blood illness.

Dalia, who lives in Pahrump, heard about the clinic through her boyfriend’s grandmother. She said the three of them, including her boyfriend, are Native American and share skepticism toward hospitals, but they felt better seeing health practitioners as a family at the pop-up.

“Another reason I came is because I ran out of my [psychiatric] medication,” Dalia said. “I had Medicaid, and then I went back to work. With my insurance, my medication is $700. I can’t even afford my medication anymore.”

Phipps said RAM covers the full cost or most of the cost of a variety of prescription medications through vouchers that are funded by grants.

She said the organization offers a welcoming environment for “people who have nowhere else to go.”

“They have a lot of anxiety,” Phipps said. “And this is much more friendly and much more comforting. Because everybody here is volunteers and here out of the goodness of their heart.”

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