Free medical and dental care in Baltimore: Why some Marylanders slept in their car to get it

Free medical and dental care in Baltimore: Why some Marylanders slept in their car to get it

Just after sunrise on Sunday morning at the Stadium School in Northeast Baltimore, volunteers ushered cars into the parking lot next to a sign that read “clinic capacity has been reached.” Patients — some of whom slept in their vehicles all night to ensure they could be seen — were already inside talking to triage staff about the medical or dental problems that brought them in, which they hadn’t been able to address anywhere else.

A semi-truck emblazoned with the words “Remote Area Medical” sat at the back of the parking lot. The Knoxville, Tennessee-based nonprofit set up shop in Baltimore for the weekend to host a pop-up clinic event where volunteer providers delivered an array of medical and dental services free of charge.

Inside, Kisha Hargrove of East Baltimore sat in line with other patients in a hallway outside a classroom where several makeshift exam rooms were set up. Hargrove came seeking dental care for a toothache she had for a few weeks, but arrived two minutes after the clinic opened at 6 a.m. — too late to snag one of the coveted spots. She hoped to get antibiotics prescribed by one of the doctors to vanquish the infection but didn’t know what she’d do to get the tooth itself fixed.

Hargrove, 48, gets Social Security disability benefits and therefore has Medicare, which does not offer any dental or vision coverage. She said, “It’s been so long” since she saw a dentist, she can’t remember the last time.

While Maryland’s efforts to plug the holes in a fragmented health insurance system have been much more robust than other states’, large gaps remain — leaving behind people who need care badly enough to sleep in a dark parking lot just to increase their chances of getting treament.

Adults with Medicaid, for example, just got dental benefits at the start of this year, but 35,000 lost coverage this month in the post-pandemic mass renewal, and thousands more will be disenrolled over the next year. Even people with commercial insurance, whether it’s through their employers or the state health benefit exchange, often contend with large deductibles and copays that cause them to avoid health care unless it’s an emergency.

Gary Johnson, 60, of Catonsville, has insurance through his employer, but he struggles to afford the 40% copays for dental care. He came to the pop-up clinic to see a dentist but, like Hargrove, just missed the cutoff, so stuck around to get a physical exam.

Free events like the ones offered by Remote Area Medical “give people a chance to understand what their [health] status is,” said Johnson. “People are so worried about health care,” in terms of costs and time taken off work to go to the doctor,

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