WISE, Va. — At the end of Patriot Drive, a stone’s throw from the Wise County Sheriff’s Office and just around the corner from the campus of UVa-Wise, are mobile units of the Health Wagon and the Smiddy Clinic — home base of the oldest and one of the most recognized free health care providers in America.
Their exploits have been and continue to be documented by national media and their services remain in high demand across this corner of central Appalachia.
In 2021 the Health Wagon had more than 35,000 patient visits from nearly 11,000 people, provided $5.4 million in care and dispensed more than $1 million in medications. A significant amount of their time and energy was spent battling COVID-19, a disease that sickened more than 26,000 in their six-county primary service area during the past year and claimed nearly 400 lives.
The organization, which relies on private donors to keep the doors open, was turned down in its bid for reimbursement.
“We took a financial hit. We had to pay an abundance of overtime, PPE [personal protective equipment], and supplies. It cost about $1.7 million just to do our COVID relief efforts,” Health Wagon CEO and President Dr. Teresa Tyson said.
Their efforts helped meet needs that local health departments, private providers and the health care system couldn’t, she said.
That $1.7 million represents nearly a third of the Health Wagon’s 2021 total value of care.
“We made a $1.7 million request to the state of Virginia, just to recoup our expenses. We understand Virginia got all this federal money, and we can’t even get reimbursement, and it didn’t even make it out of committee,” she said.
Health Wagon paid the bills from reserves, much of which came in as $10 and $20 gifts from individuals, she said.
“We’re not a multimillion-dollar corporation. We’re a little mom and pop organization started by a Catholic nun, but we try to have loud voices,” Clinical Director Dr. Paula Hill-Collins said. “We may not have the lobbyists, but we try to be loud with what we’re saying.”
During the 2022 General Assembly session, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Richlands and Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, filed budget amendment 303#1S seeking $1.749 million “from the general fund in fiscal year 2022 for the Health Wagon, which has expended more than $1.7 million in unbudgeted capital and operation and maintenance expenses directly related to COVID-19. This funding will help replenish the Health Wagon’s emergency reserve fund,” the item read.
The request did not make it into the final proposed budget.
Their dilemma was compounded by the sudden end to a federal program run by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration which had reimbursed Virginia providers nearly $100 million to cover COVID expenses since the pandemic began. Funding for that program abruptly ran out. Additional federal funding for COVID-19 has been cut back.
This all rankles Tyson who has spent the past two years on the front lines treating the sick.
“You have the richest counties in America in northern Virginia and the poorest counties here. How can people sleep at night? How can you justify not sending funding here? How can you justify not giving us some money back when we had to expend all those $10 and $20 contributions people give us? But the politicians are fine with it — well most of them,” Tyson said. “We’ve got some very good politicians that support us, and we’re thankful to God for them. But something needs to be done. Look at Virginia. Look at the disparities that exist here and the resources that do not come here. These coal miners should not be forgotten.”
Tyson, her staff of about 50, supplemented by students and volunteers, spent much of the past two years dealing with surge after surge of COVID-19 and its variants. Tyson said they all are heroes.
“We didn’t have the support [others] had. It took a lot out of us financially and our workforce. Our staff is exhausted. We were working 24/7 — open on Saturdays and Sundays trying to get infusions in — because a matter of hours made a difference whether or not people survived,” Tyson said. “The trauma that has been inflicted on the American health care force is similar to what you find in war. We’re in that 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Since she first became involved with Health Wagon a quarter-century ago, Tyson has seen needs met — sometimes miraculously
“We work very hard, but I leave the bill to God. If he calls us to do it, he will supply the means to do it. He will pay the bill,” Tyson said. “We’re very concerned about the funding because we are a free clinic. But if people want to be a part of this incredible opportunity, we stress those $10 and $20 donations. If people want to give there is an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus right here in central Appalachia.”
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