Health Wagon Executive Director Teresa Tyson and President Joe Frank Smiddy joined state Delegate Terry Kilgore, Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and federal legislators and United Health Foundation President Tracy Malone at Health Wagon’s Wise office on Thursday to announce the three-year, $1 million grant from UHF.
The grant will allow The Health Wagon to provide more specialty and diagnostic medical care to patients across the organization’s Southwest Virginia service region, Malone told the audience gathered for the announcement.
“Our mission is to improve healthcare one patient at a time,” Malone said. “Too many people struggle to get quality, compassionate care.”
Malone said she experienced firsthand the Health Wagon’s impact on the region’s population when she ate breakfast at a local restaurant earlier that morning and talked with her waitress about why she was in town.
“She said “The Health Wagon saved my life”,” Malone said.
Thursday’s announcement follows an announcement in July that the 20-year partnership between The Health Wagon and Tennessee-based Remote Area Medical was ending. The two organizations had conducted a free annual summer health clinic that provided free dental, optometric and medical care to thousands of patients in Southwest Virginia and the surrounding regions.
RAM officials said the move followed Health Wagon’s growing ability to partner with a range of other health care organizations and growing demand for RAM’s help with medical needs in other parts of the United States.
“As we look forward, we lost (RAM founder) Stan Brock a year ago today,” Tyson said. “I’m sure he’s looking down on us with a smile.”
Tyson said the Health Wagon will move forward under a new partnership named Move Mountains Medical Mission that will continue the annual summer free clinic and build upon a weeklong August event with Department of Defense support that provided medical services as well as free veterinary care for pet owners in the region.
Citing a recent effort to serve miners and families affected by the Blackjewel LLC mine closure near Harlan, Kentucky, Tyson said, “We have our sights on Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. God is calling us to other areas.”
Tyson credited Health Wagon founder Sister Bernie Kenny with foresight in establishing the organization in the 1980s. It is now the largest mobile clinic in the United States,
Sen. Warner credited Kilgore with pressing the Virginia General Assembly to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars so more state residents could get better health care access.
“If we hadn’t taken those dollars, we wouldn’t have gotten Lee County Community Hospital opening, “Warner said, also crediting Tyson, Kenny and Health Wagon Nursing Director Paula Hill Collins with their advocacy.
“We are cheerleaders for extraordinary women,” Warner said. “They are relentless, they are fearless in fighting for the residents of Southwest Virginia.”
Warner said Virginia and other states participating in federal Medicaid expansion still need to ensure that they get full reimbursement to cover services like telemedicine, which help expand rural health care access.
Rising drug costs for U.S. consumers also need controls, Warner said.
“There’s no reason why insulin costs should have tripled over the last five years,” Warner said as an example. “It’s wrong. It’s morally wrong.”
Kilgore credited Warner’s work while Virginia governor in helping make sure that state budget proposals kept markers for funding for The Health Wagon.
“I think too many state budgets depend on expanded Medicaid funding,” Kilgore later said when asked about the future of Medicaid expansion under the Trump administration. “Medicaid is the fastest growing part of Virginia’s budget. Even (Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell understands its importance.”
In the afternoon, Warner visited Lee County Community Hospital in Pennington Gap, where Ballad Health aims to have it reopened as a critical care hospital by the fall of 2020. Warner, with fellow Sen. Tim Kaine and Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith, have been monitoring Ballad Health’s progress in a federal application for the reopening.
Warner told members of the Lee County Hospital Authority during the tour that he hopes Congress will pass legislation he is sponsoring to give full Medicaid reimbursement to states that delayed acceptance of Medicaid expansion funds first offered during the Obama administration.
Ballad governmental affairs director Stacey Ely explained to Warner that Ballad plans to open an urgent care facility in the hospital’s former physician wing as a bridge until a projected opening of the hospital’s renovated emergency room in fall 2020.
Ely later said that Ballad has completed a community needs health assessment for its reopening application for Virginia Department of Health review and a final decision by the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The application will be submitted in approximately two weeks, she said.