Manatee and Sarasota residents receive free medical, dental, and vision care — no questions asked

BRADENTON — For Dr. Richard Conard, the sheer number of uninsured or underinsured patients who line up each year for Remote Area Medical’s free health care clinic in Manatee County is a wrenching reminder.

Last year, RAM, a nonprofit aid group that holds free health care events in underserved areas across the country, served a staggering 940 patients at its clinic at Manatee Technical College.

Many patients don't have insurance and those who did could not afford their doctor, hospital, pharmaceutical or other medical bills. Other insurance plans don’t cover dental or vision care.

That’s where RAM’s clinic comes to the rescue, offering free dental, vision or medical care — with no questions asked except those related to their health.

“Walking around, listening to people, it still breaks your heart,” said Conard, 80, a semiretired local physician who helped bring Remote Area Medical to Manatee County in 2014.

On Saturday, men, women and children swamped the technical college campus in east Manatee County for a two-day health extravaganza that continues through Sunday. The clinic involves about 500 local and statewide volunteers who served over 800 men and women by noon.

Some patients camped out for two days in the parking lot before the clinic opened at 6 a.m. Saturday to make sure they would be treated.

“Here you’ll see people almost desperate to get care,” said Conard, who has been practicing in Bradenton since 1967. “What you’ll see is people totally outside the medical delivery system. What you’ll see is a literal lifeline for people to be able to come and receive the care they can’t get anywhere else.”

The need for these services is great in the Suncoast area. Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties face a severe shortage of primary care physicians, according to a recent report by the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

For some, Conard said, the only access to health care is a hospital emergency room.

Another problem facing many Southwest Florida residents is access to health insurance. Over 14 percent of Manatee County residents lack health insurance, according to U.S. census data. In Sarasota County, that number is slightly higher at almost 16 percent.

Florida also ranks near the bottom of the list for its rate of insured residents in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.

Not having insurance or the ability to pay forces many patients to forego care, said Lori Dengler, a nurse practitioner at Tidewell Hospice and member of the Manatee County Healthcare Advisory Board.

Many patients don’t know where to get free or reduced care, Dengler said.

“If people had access to health care on a regular basis, we would not see as many patients here every year,” said Dengler, a four-year RAM volunteer.

But RAM events provide much more than a single weekend of free health care. In addition to caring for acute medical, dental or vision needs, some patients are given resources and free followup appointments with local practitioners.

“That’s what sets RAM apart from other popup medical events,” said Wayne Dell, 29, a volunteer and third-year medical student at the University of Florida. “There is a huge infrastructure in place from local organizations that insures that anything we do here is continued for months to follow.”