More than 600 Eastern Kentuckians line up for free care at these clinics in 2 days

For Susan Stone of Lee County, a free health care clinic is a godsend.

Stone came to Lee County High School Sunday to get her eyes checked. On Monday, she brought her father along for a physical therapy session. She'll be back again Thursday for dental work.

"I'm coming back every day that I can," Stone said. "I hope that there's a way for more services like this."

The clinic is part of Operation Bobcat, a joint mission of the Air National Guard and the U.S. Navy Reserve that has set up four free health care clinics in Eastern Kentucky, at Lee County High School in Beattyville, Owsley County High School in Booneville, Estill County High School in Irvine, and Breathitt County High School in Jackson.

The clinics, which will be open through June 24, provide free medical care, including physical therapy, dentistry and optometry, to anyone over the age of two. Neither insurance nor ID are required.

Patients who may not otherwise be able to afford care can get fillings in their teeth and a new pair of single-prescription eyeglasses.

"I'm just thankful that it's here," Stone said. "There's a major need."

Cost of health care can be a major barrier for Eastern Kentuckians living on a low- or fixed-income. According to a 2016 survey from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, nearly one third of Eastern Kentucky poll respondents said they or one of their family members had problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months.

More than one quarter of respondents said they or another member of their household did not receive medical care, or delayed receiving care, because they couldn't afford it.

"The truth of it is, this area is really still behind the times," said Samuel Thompson, who came to the clinic with his wife, Rochelle, for vision care.

Thompson said a lack of public transportation, coupled with a shortage of well-paying jobs in the region, means that many residents go too long without medical care, including dental and vision.

Commander Michael Liao checks the breathing of Samuel Thompson, 45, of Lee County during a medical visit during Operation Bobcat at the Lee County High School on Monday. Operation Bobcat set up 4 clinics in Eastern Kentucky to provide training to military personal and healthcare to areas that are in need of medical services. Silas Walker

In their first two days of operation, more than 600 patients lined up for care at the clinics, officials said.

"If we make a difference in somebody's quality of life, that's all that matters," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Walter Schratz, a dentist and the mission's assistant officer in charge.

One patient, he said, had gone about 10 years without dental care when she arrived at the clinic. Many of the woman's teeth were worn down and much-needing of work when a dentist saw her.

"He was able to provide a smile for her," Schratz said.

Operation Bobcat's primary goal is to train military troops how to set up clinics and provide care during deployment. The military works with states and local governments on similar projects throughout the country to provide free health care in under-served areas.

The Kentucky Department for Local Government, in coordination with the Appalachian Regional Commission, began working toward this project about 18 months ago, said Department for Local Government Commissioner Sandra Dunahoo.

"It's an incredible benefit in these local communities," Dunahoo said. "It's been very, very inspiring."

The operation gives the troops a chance to practice medical care, and to work on the logistics of moving equipment and personnel in a hurry.

More than 215 troops are stationed at the Eastern Kentucky clinics, and much of the set-up happened in just one day. Soldiers work, sleep and eat at their respective locations. They transported and set up 30 tons of equipment, including medical gear, food and other support equipment, such as Internet and telephone services.

In 2016, a similar project in Western Kentucky offered care to more than 4,000 residents. During that project, the troops provided 1,800 pairs of prescription eyeglasses and $20,000 worth of medications.

Nikki Yarber, a patient at the clinic, said she hopes similar free health care clinics return to the region.

"We've been having so much happening at the house with bills, we can't just go out and take a day to take care of our vision and teeth," she said. "I'm grateful it's here."

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @​HLWright