US: Healthcare

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"All our services are free and are provided by volunteers. The doctor is free; the dentist is free; the eye doctor is free."

The website for Remote Area Medical (RAM) has to spell it out for a sceptical public used to being charged for even the most basic elements of healthcare.

RAM was set up by British-born Stan Brock in 1985 after he had lived for some time in the upper Amazon basin. He wanted to help make healthcare available to the most remote and impoverished people of the region.

Today Brock's ancient aircraft and thousands of healthcare volunteers are more likely to be landing in the southern states of the US than the Amazon. They arrive and set up a temporary hospital for a number of days and take all comers.

The pictures of M*A*S*H-style field hospitals that appeared across the British media this summer brought home the shocking situation that millions of people in the richest nation in the world have to rely on charity for their healthcare.

Brock spoke to Socialist Review: "Now around 65 percent of our programmes are based in the US and we are seeing numbers of people travelling several hundreds of miles, even across country, to get access to free general medical, surgical, eye and dental care."

He was quick to point out that this is not just the result of the recession. Ever since RAM started to set up these temporary field hospitals in remote areas in the US, queues have formed through the night. The people who come are some of the 46 million Americans without any health insurance. But Brock explained, "We don't just deal with people who have no health insurance. Many people who are in work can't afford full coverage. Forty-one percent of the people we treat are underinsured."

People can get scans and have their teeth pulled. They can have eye tests and glasses made on the spot. In some cases, as individuals go through the triage examination, Brock has had to call an ambulance to take them straight to hospital as they have been discovered to have life-threatening high blood pressure or other critical conditions.

It was such experiences that led many working class Americans to vote for Obama in the hopes that his promises of affordable healthcare for all would become a reality. But much has changed since Obama's election. The business interests of the big insurance companies have asserted themselves. The options for reforming healthcare provision currently being debated are far from the radical overhaul that is needed. What eventually gets passed may well be trumpeted as a victory for the poor but there is no doubt now that it will be a pale shadow of what is possible.

Stan Brock and his team of volunteers will be seeing desperate patients for some time to come.