The Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps -- or RAM, which is a mobile clinic -- is back in Knoxville this weekend, offering free medical, dental and vision care to people in need.
The visit, coincidentally, comes on the heels of the death of Insure Tennessee, which a state Senate committee killed Wednesday. The plan would have provided an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans with federally-funded health care.
RAM's Knoxville clinic opens for the weekend at 6 a.m. Saturday, but people were lining up as early as 2 p.m. Friday.
Tom Brown was the first to park his car in the grassy lot across the street from Chilhowee Park, near the Jacob Building, where the clinic will take place.
"Most of the people that are here, if they had their druthers, I'm sure they'd rather be at home in bed," Brown said Friday evening in the lot, which was quickly filling up with cars.
Brown came with his sister, who is on disability. Brown has a job but said both he and his sister are seeking dental work at the clinic.
"I got dental insurance, but $250 deductible? That's a week's pay!" Brown said. "I don't know how most folks are. If they're like me, they're living paycheck to paycheck, you know, and even if you've got insurance, they can't afford their deductibles, you know. I mean, it comes down between paying your bills, buying gas and going back and forth to work."
His is a position in which tens of thousands of other Tennesseans also find themselves -- a problem Gov. Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan aimed to address.
However, that bill died in committee, to the dismay of Knoxville teacher and former Democratic state representative Gloria Johnson.
"Isn't it ironic that right here in Knoxville, in the governor's backyard, we have people lining up tonight, hundreds of people lining up with their families in cars, to wait for hours - hours - in the freezing cold to see a doctor?" Johnson posed.
She helped organize a midnight candlelight vigil where people were parking for the clinic, in order to stand in solidarity with those who can't pay for health care and also raise awareness about the need for affordable health insurance in Tennessee.
Johnson said her very first thought when she first heard about Insure Tennessee's defeat Wednesday was, "the students that I know whose parents could really benefit (from) this, and just the idea that they'll be lined up at the RAM event this weekend. You know, their weekend will be spent waiting in line, waiting in their car with their family in the freezing cold, trying to see a doctor, trying to see a dentist. It's just so wrong."
RAM's founder, Stan Brock, calls the Insure Tennessee proposal a well-intentioned effort, truly, but says since it apparently did not provide for dental and vision services for adults, its effects would have been greatly diminished. He extended that feeling to the Affordable Care Act, too.
"As long as it doesn't address dentistry for adults and vision care for adults, we're going to be seeing tens of thousands of people at these events that we hold," Brock said. "Tomorrow, when we actually break it down in count, we're going to find that 90-something percent of all the people that are here now are here to get their teeth fixed and to get their eyes fixed and get a pair of eyeglasses."
Brock estimated this weekend's RAM clinic would see about 1,000 people, which is a small event compared to most his organization holds, he said. RAM clinics are held in cities all across the world, although Brock said in recent years his organization has had to focus its efforts domestically, from Los Angeles and Knoxville to Seattle and beyond.
"We're so bogged down in dealing with this problem here in the United States for the last many, many years, that we've had to cut back on our overseas programs," Brock said. "For the richest country in the world, that's something rather sad, I think."
The Daily Show featured a Knoxville RAM event last year in a parody news story about the state of health care in America. A link to that video is HERE.
For people who can't afford health care, however, the lack of access to services is no joke.
"Hey, what is it now? It's about 39 degrees, I think. Last year, here at the same location, it was 28 degrees, so at least it's kind of warm tonight," Brock said. "But the fact that people here, at this early hour in the evening, are probably about 800 people already, that tells you something about the terrible state of health care in the United States."
He said he has appeared before US Congress three times regarding this matter and encourages the president of the United States to come see a RAM clinic to believe it.
One thing Tennessee has done right, Brock mentioned, is change the law in 1997 to allow doctors from other states to come volunteer their services at RAM clinics held in Tennessee. Many other states, he said, still ban doctors practicing across state borders. But since 1997, he said, more than a dozen other states have changed their laws to make it easier for out-of-state doctors to volunteer their time and treat patients.