Getting even basic health care delivered to people in rural Appalachia has always been a problem, well-documented over many decades, but here in the 21st century, it shouldn’t still be such a challenge.

Nevertheless, it is — so we must applaud efforts by organizations such as The Health Wagon, a Wise, Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to providing “compassionate, quality health care to the medically underserved people in the Mountains of Appalachia,” according to its website (

The Health Wagon operates a mobile clinic and two stationary clinics that serve the rural Southwest Virginia counties of Wise, Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell and Scott.

This past week, The Health Wagon received notice of a generous three-year, $1 million grant from the United Health Foundation to help expand its diagnostic and specialty health care services in Southwest Virginia.

The money will allow The Health Wagon to provide mammography, ultrasound, X-ray and dental care services at no cost to people in need of care in the organization’s coverage area, where, according to the group’s website, more than 98% of its patients do not have health insurance. The economic situation has worsened dramatically in recent years for people in these once coal-dependent central Appalachian communities as mining operations have dwindled and disappeared.

“We know from experience that early detection and treatment of disease is vital for improving the health and well-being of the people we serve,” Teresa Tyson, executive director of The Health Wagon, said in a news release. “We welcome the United Health Foundation’s partnership in expanding lifesaving specialty and diagnostic care for thousands of medically underserved individuals and families living in Southwest Virginia.”

United Health Foundation’s generous grant to The Health Wagon won’t provide for all of its financial needs, for sure, but it will go a long way toward helping with this necessary expansion of services.

By its own calculations, The Health Wagon provided nearly $5.7 million in free health care services to 4,724 patients in its service area during 2018, according to the group’s most recent annual report. That included 16,670 patient encounters.

The Health Wagon says that more than two-thirds of its patients have “an income of less than $20,000 annually, despite working multiple jobs.”

“This means they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance,” the website notes. “Our patients live in desperately poverty-stricken rural Appalachia, where they can’t afford to go to the doctor but can’t afford not to.”

The group has a nearly 40-year history in the region. It was started by Sister Bernadette Kenny, a medical missionary from Massachusetts, who “came to Appalachia and began offering free medical care from the back of a donated Volkswagen Beetle,” the website says. Originally, her work was sponsored by St. Mary’s Hospital in Norton, Virginia.

Financial and other donations from individuals, companies and organizations such as United Health Foundation help keep The Health Wagon running, along with time donated by caring medical professionals.

The United Health Foundation is a nonprofit, private foundation that has donated $430 million to such programs around the world since it was founded 1999, the news release said.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with The Health Wagon to ensure Virginians in Central Appalachia have access to compassionate, high-quality health care,” Tracy Malone, president of the United Health Foundation, said. “Ultimately, our shared goal is to help people live healthier lives and improve the health care experience for patients.”

The Health Wagon last month said it would also organize a free clinic in Wise County next July, called the Move Mountains Medical Mission.

We should applaud and support the efforts of The Heath Wagon and other organizations of its kind that help bring needed health care to underserved people in Southwest Virginia.

They are filling a need that would otherwise go unmet and, in doing so, improving the health care and brightening the futures of thousands of our fellow Virginians in central Appalachia.

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