CBS’s Pelley: American Health Care as Bad as a Third World Country

NewsBusters.org - Media Research CenterOn Sunday’s "60 Minutes," anchor Scott Pelley profiled a charity called Remote Area Medical and its efforts to provide free health care in the United States:

Recently, we heard about an American relief organization that air drops doctors and medicine into the jungles of the Amazon. Its called Remote Area Medical, or "RAM" for short. Remote Area Medical sets up emergency clinics where the needs are greatest. But these days, that's not the Amazon -- this charity founded to help people who can't reach medical care now finds itself throwing America a lifeline.

Later, Pelley asked the charity’s founder, Stan Brock, about this: "You've created this medical organization that was designed to go into third world countries, to go into remote places, and you're now doing 60% of your work in urban and rural America. What are we supposed to make of that?"

Pelley was shocked by the number of people who arrived at a RAM free clinic set up in Knoxville, Tennesse:

The clinic wouldn't open for seven hours, but people in pain didn't want to chance being left out. State guardsmen came in for crowd control. They handed out what would become precious slips of paper -- numbered tickets to board what amounted to a medical lifeboat...It was 27 degrees. The young and the old would spend the night in their cars, running the engine for heat, but not too much-- not at three dollars a gallon.

Of course this was not the first time that Pelley was shocked by people in America receiving charitable care. In January of 2003 Pelley did a story on "60 Minutes II" on food banks in America and said this:

The lines we found looked like they’d been taken from the pages of the Great Depression. It's not just the unemployed, we found plenty of people working full-time but still not able to earn enough to keep hunger out the house. If you think you have a good idea of who's hungry in America today, come join the line. You'd never guess who you'd meet there.

In Sunday’s story Pelley highlighted one elderly woman in particular, Joanna Ford, who needed a new pair of glasses:

PELLEY: Late on Sunday, Joanne Ford's number was among the last to be called. We found her sitting by a stairwell. She's retired, living on disability, with no insurance, and her glasses don't work anymore. She got in only to find out that the vision care line had closed. How is your vision?

JOANNE FORD: I bet in my left eye, it's probably, I couldn't see your face. The Lord will take care of me, the Lord will provide, the Lord will provide.

PELLEY: But not today.

FORD: But not today. So, I've got to look for another option, but I'll find one.

PELLEY: What are you going to do?

FORD: I don't know-- I have a lot of good friends and I have a lot of church support. I was very active in my church and I have a lot of friends at church. I just hate to ask. I've worked all my life. I hate to ask. That's why things like this are so wonderful.

PELLEY: There is no shame in seeking healthcare.

FORD: No, you're right. You know, it really... I am sad that we are the wealthiest nation in the world, and we don't take care of our own, so... but it will be okay.

PELLEY: And it did turn out okay, after all; someone at RAM noticed Joanne's situation. They put her in the vision care line and examined her for a new pair of glasses.

Earlier in the segment Pelley asked Brock about the number of people who use RAM’s free clinics:

PELLEY: When you set up the first expedition in the United States, were you surprised at the number of people who came?

BROCK: Yes. Yes, I was. And the numbers are getting higher. And I don't know if it's because we're getting better known, or that the health care in this country is getting worse.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

SCOTT PELLEY: One of the decisive issues in the presidential campaign is likely to be health insurance. Texas and Ohio vote on Tuesday, and those states alone have nearly 7 million uninsured residents. Nationwide, 47 million have no health insurance. But that's just the start, because millions more are underinsured, unable to pay their deductibles or get access to dental care. Recently, we heard about an American relief organization that air drops doctors and medicine into the jungles of the Amazon. Its called Remote Area Medical, or "RAM" for short. Remote Area Medical sets up emergency clinics where the needs are greatest. But these days, that's not the Amazon -- this charity founded to help people who can't reach medical care now finds itself throwing America a lifeline. In a matter of hours, Remote Area Medical set up its massive clinic in an exhibit hall, for a weekend, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tools for dentists were laid out by the yard; optometrists prepared to make hundreds of pairs of glasses; general medical doctors set up for whatever might come though the door. Nearly everything is donated, everyone is a volunteer. The care is free. But no one could say how many patients might show up. The first clue came a little before midnight when Stan Brock, the founder of Remote Area Medical, opened the gate outside the exhibit hall. The clinic wouldn't open for seven hours, but people in pain didn't want to chance being left out. State guardsmen came in for crowd control. They handed out what would become precious slips of paper -- numbered tickets to board what amounted to a medical lifeboat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We brought some snacks and blankets and we'll...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: Well, I hope you stay warm. It's kind of chilly tonight.

PELLEY: It was 27 degrees. The young and the old would spend the night in their cars, running the engine for heat, but not too much-- not at three dollars a gallon. At 5:00 a.m. we took a walk through the parking lot. How long you been out here tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We got up at 3:00 this morning and we got here about 4:00. We've been out here a little while. It's cold.

PELLEY: Why did you come so early?

WOMAN: Because we wanted to be seen.

PELLEY: Marty Tankersley came with his wife and his daughter, asleep behind the front seats. You drove 200 miles to get here?

MARTY TANKERSLEY: Yes, sir.

PELLEY: And slept in this parking lot for seven or more hours?

TANKERSLEY: Yes, sir.

PELLEY: Just to have this done?

TANKERSLEY: Yes, sir. I've been in some very excruciating pain.

PELLEY: He had an infected tooth that had been killing him for weeks. Most of the people who filled the lot heard about the clinic on the news or by word of mouth, and they came by the hundreds."

STAN BROCK: We're very happy that you're here this morning. We've got a lot of really fine volunteer doctors, dentists, eye specialists...

PELLEY: Stan Brock calls RAM clinics "medical expeditions." He takes all comers, but just for the weekend. When you set up the first expedition in the United States, were you surprised at the number of people who came?

BROCK: Yes. Yes, I was. And the numbers are getting higher. And I don't know if it's because we're getting better known, or that the health care in this country is getting worse. Who's got number one? Come on down. Number one. Number two...

PELLEY: On Saturday at 6:00 a.m. they entered by the numbers. Inside, 276 volunteers from 11 states were waiting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN C: Are you here for medical, dental or vision?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: When was the last time you had a breast exam by a nurse or a doctor? Never?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN C: 20 years ago, 25 years ago.

PELLEY: For those who were diagnosed with cancer today or diabetes, or heart disease, RAM will try to find a volunteer doctor who will follow up. Ross Isaacs is one of the doctors. Who are these patients?

ROSS ISSACS: It's the working poor, middle of their lives -- most with families, most not substance abusers -- and employed without adequate insurance.

PELLEY: Dr. Isaacs saw Marty Tankersley, the man we met in the parking lot who'd driven 200 miles. It turned out that Tankersley, a few years back, had two heart attacks and heart surgery, but almost no follow-up since.

ISSACS: So, you haven't seen somebody in a while with regards to your ticker and stuff?

PELLEY: The Tankersleys live in Dalton, Georgia. They fall in the category of the underinsured. Marty's a truck driver. He has major medical insurance through his employer, but the deductible is $500, really unaffordable. And the dental insurance costs too much. No one really knows just how many Americans are underinsured like the Tankersleys.

ISSACS: He's the lucky one -- that could drive the 200 miles. He's the lucky one that got to see people today and get hooked in. There are tens of hundreds of thousands of people like him.

PELLEY: Marty, his wife and daughter were seen for check- ups, glasses, mammograms, and the yanking of that agonizing tooth.

TANKERSLEY: This has truly been a godsend to us, to me and my family. And to all the hundreds of people that's here. I see the faces, the relief in the faces. This has been a wonderful thing.

PELLEY: This was RAM's 524th expedition. Ram took off in 1992, airlifting relief to Latin America. And at age 71, Stan Brock still

flies the antique fleet. That C-47 flew on D-day. Brock is British by birth, an adventurer at heart. He was a cowboy in the Amazon and then, incredibly, he was discovered by TV's "Wild Kingdom." Brock became a star, sort of a naturalist daredevil.

BROCK: It took only a moment for the situation to totally reverse itself.

PELLEY: Today, Brock is devoted to RAM, completely devoted. He has no family, takes no salary, has no home. Brock lives in an abandoned school that the city of Knoxville leases to RAM for a dollar. Until recently, he took showers in the courtyard with a hose.

PELLEY: When we see what we've seen over the last weekend, how do you pay for all of that?

BROCK: In the first place, we really know how to stretch the dollar. We operate entirely on the generosity of the American people. I'd like to say that we had big corporate support in America, but we don't. So, it's those little checks from those people that send in the $5 and $10.

PELLEY: RAM operates on a shoestring, about $250,000 a year. And yet, last year, it treated 17,000 patients. On this Saturday, there was no sign of a let up. What have you accomplished today?

BROCK: Well, uh, we basically had 600 or so people that have arrived here overnight, and we were able to do just about everybody. I think we turned away about 15 people who are going to come back tomorrow morning, anyway.

PELLEY: The next day, Sunday, there were hundreds more. Tickets started again with the number one. But now, the doctors were racing time. In hours they'd be headed home.

BROCK: Who's got 361? 362. 362. 363...

TERESA GARDNER: We were really glad that you came in.

PELLEY: Nurse Practitioner Teresa Gardner was worried about Rebecca McWilliams. McWilliams had surgery for cervical cancer in 2005, but without the recommended follow-up. How long has it been?

REBECCA MCWILLIAMS: It's been two, about two years since I've had my last pap smear, and I was supposed to have every six months, and I've really only had it once since that surgery.

PELLEY: You know, I think many doctors would say you've taken a terrible risk waiting this long?

MCWILLIAMS: Yeah, I really have. But it's just, like I said, it's very hard to afford it. I have three kids, and my husband lost his job this past summer.

PELLEY: McWilliams' pap smear came back clear but, in her exam, Gardner found reason to worry.

TERESA GARDNER: I think just from, you know, the clinical inspection of the cervix that, you know, possibly, there is a possibility that cancer, you know, still... still being there.

PELLEY: She's 28 years old.

GARDNER: 28 years old, the mother of three.

PELLEY: You've created this medical organization that was designed to go into third world countries, to go into remote places, and you're now doing 60% of your work in urban and rural America. What are we supposed to make of that?

BROCK: For 50 million or so people in this country, the one thing that is on their mind is "what if I have a catastrophic event-- a car crash, a heart attack?"

PELLEY: Because they don't have health insurance.

BROCK: "Because I either have no health insurance or I'm underinsured." And... and, so this is a very, very weighty thing to be thinking about, knowing that your family is in great jeopardy. 376. 377. 378. 379. 380.

PELLEY: Late on Sunday, Joanne Ford's number was among the last to be called. We found her sitting by a stairwell. She's retired, living on disability, with no insurance, and her glasses don't work anymore. She got in only to find out that the vision care line had closed. How is your vision?

JOANNE FORD: I bet in my left eye, it's probably, I couldn't see your face. The Lord will take care of me, the Lord will provide, the Lord will provide.

PELLEY: But not today.

FORD: But not today. So, I've got to look for another option, but I'll find one.

PELLEY: What are you going to do?

FORD: I don't know-- I have a lot of good friends and I have a lot of church support. I was very active in my church and I have a lot of friends at church. I just hate to ask. I've worked all my life. I hate to ask. That's why things like this are so wonderful.

PELLEY: There is no shame in seeking healthcare.

FORD: No, you're right. You know, it really... I am sad that we are the wealthiest nation in the world, and we don't take care of our own, so... but it will be okay.

PELLEY: And it did turn out okay, after all; someone at RAM noticed Joanne's situation. They put her in the vision care line and examined her for a new pair of glasses.

BROCK: If I may have your attention, please. I'm... I'm afraid that we've got some rather disappointing news...

PELLEY: But at the gate, many were waiting when the weekend ended.

BROCK: 449. And 450.

PELLEY: In the expedition to Knoxville, RAM saw 920 patients, made 500 pairs of glasses, did 94 mammograms, extracted 1,066 teeth, and did 567 fillings. But when Stan Brock called the last number, 400 people were turned away. What's going through your mind when you're reading off the last two or three numbers, and you see so many more people at the gate than are going to be able to come in?

BROCK: Yeah, well the... you know, that's the... that's the lousy part of this job. I mean, it's nice to, you know, to... to be able to know that you've... that you've helped a bunch of people. But the reality is that... that we can't do everybody. At the moment, we're just seeing the thousands and thousands of people that we can, and the rest of them, unfortunately, have got to do the best they can without us.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC