There are few things as frightening as facing a serious health problem when you don’t have insurance to cover the costs. Enter: Project Access, a community initiative with a mission of compassion and a message of hope. In the almost 11 years since Hamilton County Project Access enrolled its first patient, nearly 11,000 patients have received care from the
community health partnership.
By Laura Childers
What is Project Access?
Project Access is a local network of doctors, hospitals, medical schools, community clinics, and more that works to provide access to specialty care for patients who need treatment, but don’t have the financial resources to afford it. Project Access partners today include primary care health centers, physical therapy centers, surgery centers, mental health services, and a variety of community organizations.
The program is designed to support people with low-income jobs who cannot afford health coverage, but make too much to qualify for programs like TennCare. “Project Access is an integrated health care system for the working poor,” explains Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, which manage the program.
Nearly 11 years after the program first began, Project Access remains a vital and important resource for people without insurance. Since its inception, it has donated over $124 million in health care to Hamilton County residents who don’t have health insurance.
Who is involved?
The initiative is coordinated by the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga in partnership with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society. Since the first 100 physicians volunteered back in 2004, hundreds more have joined the program’s volunteer ranks, and today, nearly 800 volunteer physicians are part of the Project Access network. And since Hamilton County’s Erlanger, CHI Memorial, and Parkridge hospital systems helped form the program, Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and Kindred Hospital have joined the ranks.
“Project Access has been a truly extraordinary partnership,” says Rae Young Bond. “Our network has grown significantly over the years, while all of our initial partner facilities and health centers continue to remain active and engaged.”
“Physicians have always provided charity care, but Project Access allows us to work more efficiently by coordinating services,” says Medical Foundation of Chattanooga president Dr. Mark Brzezienski. “This coordination allows us to focus all our attention on providing the best possible care for patients.”
What about health care reform?
With the advent of federal health reform, many have wondered if there will continue to be a need for programs like Project Access. Bond responds to this. “Since Tennessee has not expanded TennCare, our poorest residents – those below 100% of the federal poverty level – don’t qualify for financial assistance to purchase insurance through the federal marketplace. Donated or low-cost health services remain their only option if they don’t qualify for TennCare.”
In recent years, HealthScope® has interviewed several patients who were willing to share their experiences with Project Access and its health care providers. This year, we are revisiting a few to see how they have progressed. A year or more after they completed their care, all agree that Project Access was a life-changing experience.
Donna Hassell In August of 2012, in the midst of caring for her son who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident four years prior, Donna Hassell was diagnosed with pancreatitis. At her lowest point, she dropped to only 63 pounds (down from 110 pounds) and was very near death. With the assistance of Project Access, Donna underwent GI surgery. Now she is able to eat most foods, has surpassed the 100-pound mark, and is currently receiving TennCare. While she continues to hurt every day, she says she is so THANKFUL to be able to continue her life caring for her disabled son and checking in on her 86-year-old mother who lives right next door.
Kathleen Stevens Prior to receiving Medicare, Kathleen Stevens suffered from two serious eye conditions – glaucoma and cataracts. With the help of Project Access, she began seeing ophthalmologists Dr. Paula Nicola and Dr. Molly Seal, whose timely treatment helped to preserve Kathleen’s eyesight. According to Dr. Nicola, Kathleen now has perfect vision in each eye. She has been on Medicare for a number of years and is currently looking for a second job in order to remain active. “The Project Access doctors literally saved my eyesight,” says Kathleen. “With their help, I was able to continue working and living a full life.”
Ronald Holland Ron was diagnosed with lung cancer after the construction market crash caused him – and millions of other Americans – to lose their jobs and health insurance. Shortly after, he was referred to Project Access for surgery. He underwent a lung resection and a round of chemotherapy and was disease-free just a year later. But his complications were not over. In 2013, Ron was working at a new job when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was referred back to Project Access, and underwent an operation to reconstruct his esophagus and save his larynx. Today, Ron is gaining in strength and weight (fortifying his once-weakened state of 107 pounds), working full-time, and thankful for all the support he received from the individuals of the Project Access program. “Without this program, I wouldn’t be alive,” he says.