By Jon Herskovitz
MISSION Texas (Reuters) – For the Texas State and National Guard, Operation Lone Star is a disaster preparedness exercise. For public health experts, it is a humanitarian mission. And for Itzel, a teenage schoolgirl, it is a chance to finally get glasses so she can read textbooks.
Operation Lone Star started 16 years ago to help the guard prepare for emergencies such as hurricanes or pandemics in south Texas. Since then it has expanded its medical care component, treating thousands in a region that hugs the Mexican border, including some who come because no identification papers are required.
“It feels weird to see things in focus,” Itzel said as she tried on newly made prescription glasses.
Itzel was among more than 10,000 people who received care at last week’s Operation Lone Star, held at five sites in four border counties. Because the people are medical patients, Texas privacy laws do not permit them to be formally identified.
Public health officials said it makes sense to piggy back on the guard’s emergency relief drills, which are not related to a move by Governor Rick Perry to deploy Texas National Guard troops to the Mexican border in order to bolster security. The guard has been joined in recent years by medical aid groups such as Remote Area Medical, which operates in places ranging from Appalachia to sub-Saharan Africa.
“This is first and foremost a training exercise, but it also turns out to be a humanitarian effort,” said John Villarreal, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The need for free medical care is great in Texas, where about a quarter of the state’s 26.5 million people lack health insurance, and particularly acute in the Hispanic communities along the border, many of which are mired in poverty.
About 300 military staff members including medical professionals, 200 state and local employees, Baylor University dental school students, and scores of volunteers staffed the operation.
Services included immunizations, diabetes screenings and physicals for students, as well as hearing and vision exams. The Texas plan is being studied by other states looking to use it as a model for dispensing public health care.
“We do not require ID at Operation Lone Star because if a disaster were to hit this area, it wouldn’t be about checking ID. It would be about saving lives,” Villarreal said.
For most of those who lined up each day at the five sites, it was their only chance to see a doctor for the year.
Remote Area Medical brought dozens of portable dental chairs, as well as equipment for vision exams and equipment to grind lenses for prescription eyeglasses and fit them into frames.
The benefits for the state come from tracking thousands of people as they move from triage to treatment and coordinating work with volunteer agencies.
“If it is a person in Texas and they have a contagious illness, whether they are legal or illegal, if they pass it on to another person, then Texas ends up suffering,” said Robert Morecook, a colonel in the Texas State Guard’s Medical Brigade.
For many living hand-to-mouth along the border, the clinic fits into a dual-nation strategy to obtain medical care as cheaply as possible.
“The document thing is big for a lot of people around here. It makes it easier for them if they don’t have to bring IDs,” said Denisse, one of hundreds who had lined up beginning in the pre-dawn hours to receive care.
Stan Brock, the founder and president of Remote Area Medical, wants the U.S. government to make it easier for doctors to cross state borders to work as medical volunteers, which would bring more care to more people in need.
“Some people may argue that this is a Band-Aid. But for the person who comes in … and has never been to a dentist in their life, or doesn’t know what a leaf looks like on a tree until they get glasses, that is a life-changing experience,” Brock said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)