WISE — Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and state Sen. Todd Pillion highlighted medical challenges facing Southwest Virginia on Monday against the backdrop of a joint military-civilian free clinic near Wise.
Pillion, Warner and The Health Wagon CEO Dr. Teresa Tyson toured the Innovative Readiness Training/Move Mountains Medical Mission at the Wise County Fairgrounds, meeting military medical and Health Wagon staff during the clinic’s eighth day. Tyson said the approximately 100 Army, Navy and Air Force doctors, dentists, nurses and behavioral health specialists have treated more than 1,000 patients since Aug. 15.
Dental services have seen the highest demand, Tyson said, with more than 1,600 dental procedures since Aug. 15.
Pillion, R-40th, is a pediatric dentist, and he said his own academic career converged with the early days of The Health Wagon’s establishment of a two-decade annual summer clinic partnership with Remote Area Medical.
As a then-dental student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Pillion said he was called into the dean’s office to find himself asked by officials about the demand for a summer free dental clinic in Wise County.
“I don’t think there’ll be much attendance,” Pillion recalled saying before he flew into Wise for that first weekend RAM clinic and saw “nothing but cars” waiting at the site.
“That’s when I realized pain always trumps pride,” Pillion said. “We have to get more (dental) students from Southwest Virginia and Tennessee engaged in their careers.”
Pillion pointed to the General Assembly’s recent move to improve reimbursement rates for dentists providing Medicaid services for the first time in 17 years. Lincoln Memorial University’s establishment of a dental school also provides opportunities to increase the number of dentists in the region, he added.
“We can’t take our foot off the gas,” Pillion said of efforts to improve the region’s access to dental care.
Warner, who made the formal announcement of $1.25 million in federal funds for The Health Wagon’s planned dental clinic in Wise, credited The Health Wagon and the IRT detachment with helping sustain access to dental care.
“It’s good to show people that these are folks that not only defend our country,” said Warner, “but they also protect our country, and part of that protection comes with helping people who need this kind of assistance.”
Warner also congratulated the region’s General Assembly delegation for its work in expanding Medicaid care and supporting improved health care access.
“These are people who care deeply in Southwest Virginia,” Warner said of Pillion, House of Delegates Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, the late Del. Joe Johnson and previous 40th District state Sen. William Wampler Jr.
Recalling his first encounter with RAM’s 2002 summer clinic and seeing the demand for dental services, Warner said he brought his staff to visit subsequent clinics. With diabetes as a major Southwest Virginia medical issue, he said his daughter — a type 1 diabetic — also got involved as a RAM volunteer helping register and screen patients.
Referring to recent passage on the Inflation Reduction Act, gun control legislation and the CHIPS Act to increase domestic computer chip production, Warner said much of Congress’ work in recent weeks has been bipartisan.
Warner said the failure of a cap on insulin for privately insured patients still needs addressing, even though the Medicaid cap and provisions for Medicaid negotiation on prescription drug prices represent progress for Americans.
“I am a proud capitalist,” said Warner, “but I also realize that Americans shouldn’t be paying the entire cost of developing drugs for the entire world.”
Warner said insulin was developed more than a century ago, but the price has quadrupled in recent years.
“I realize there have been some refinements, but there’s no reason for such cost increases,” Warner added.
Warner said the Inflation Reduction Act will bring stability for miners and families receiving federal black lung benefits after recent expiration of an annual excise tax rate on mined underground and surface coal. He pointed to the growing incidents of black lung among younger coal miners.
Asked if a renewed effort to extend the insulin price cap could come if the Democrats prevail in the November congressional elections, Warner said yes.