Mike was an uninsured, single parent with a health condition that threatened his ability to continue working and supporting his family. Project Access was the lifeline he needed, and in April 2004 he became the first patient enrolled in the then-new program. After surgery, Mike was able to keep his job, stay in school, and continue supporting his family.
Since 2004, Mike’s story has been repeated by 13,700 people who have received life-saving and life-transforming care through the Project Access Community Health Partnership.
In 2016, partnerships remain the key to the program’s success. “Project Access collaborates with 15 community health centers, three hospital systems, rehabilitation facilities, laboratories, and 970 volunteer physicians and health care providers to provide coordinated, donated health care for low-income, uninsured people in our community,” says Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, which started the program, and the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, which manages the program.
Project Access helps uninsured and low-income Hamilton County residents receive medical care. The program can help uninsured patients find a primary care home, while also helping primary care clinics connect their patients to specialists and other health care services.
Since Mike received care in 2004, Project Access has coordinated $148 million in donated health care services. “The program is an
extraordinary community partnership,” Bond says. “All of our partners play an active role on our Project Access Operations Council.”
Project Access coordinates care for 550 to 650 patients every month. Patients are initially enrolled in the program for three to six months, depending on the expected course of treatment. This time may be extended, and some patients have been part of Project Access for much longer.
To be eligible for Project Access, patients must have a current medical condition, be uninsured, ineligible for health insurance and other health benefits, and have income below 150% of the poverty level. “Patients must be referred to our program by our partners – health centers, hospitals, and volunteer physicians,” Bond says.
“Having access to specialty care actually increases the capacity of primary care health centers,” Bond says. “Before Project Access was created, patients often had to make repeat visits to their primary care clinic until their condition was bad enough that they could access specialty care through a visit to the emergency room. Now, patients can receive specialty treatment sooner, which means those extra visits can be used by someone else who needs primary care.”
The relationship between Project Access and the Volunteers in Medicine health center is a key example of this partnership. “Our partnership with Project Access began the minute our doors opened,” says Ashley Evans, executive director of the Volunteers in Medicine (VIM)
faith-based health center. “Project Access started a year before we did, and our patients really wouldn’t have access to any type of specialized care without Project Access,” she says.
“We might have a patient who comes in regularly, and they’ve developed a really bad cough over the last few months,” Evans says. “We have an X-ray machine in house, but if we find a spot on the patient’s lung, we don’t have an oncologist here. We’re able to refer that person to Project Access and connect the patient with an oncologist for the specialized care they need.”
“On the reverse side, Project Access also refers patients who need primary care to our health center and others,” Evans said. “Some of these individuals haven’t seen a doctor in many years and are worried that they might have diabetes or some kind of heath concern. We can do a general work-up, and refer them back to Project Access if they need specialty care.”
“Both of our programs have one shared goal: To be able to provide care for every person who needs and wants it,” Evans said.
Debra Owens is one patient who has benefited from the VIM/Project Access partnership. Owens worked in corporate America for nearly 20 years before the company downsized, causing her to lose her job and health insurance. “It was a really tough time that became even harder a year or two later when I developed rheumatoid arthritis,” Owens says.
Owens found Volunteers in Medicine for her primary care home. VIM referred her to Project Access, and Project Access connected her to Dr. Suzan House, a rheumatologist at Arthritis Associates. “It was amazing to be referred to Dr. House. I had heard about her when I was in a medical study in Atlanta. Then suddenly, she was my rheumatologist. It felt like divine intervention!”
“Dr. House and Project Access have made a tremendous difference in my life,” Owens said. “I am very thankful for this program. With RA, you can deteriorate very quickly without treatment. Even though I’ve been nearly disabled a couple of times, the care I’ve received lets me keep moving and be as active as possible.”
Project Access has another life-saving partnership with the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation (GCCCF). The organization was created to raise awareness for colon cancer screening through education and to assist those who cannot afford to be screened, according to GCCCF founder Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero.
“The foundation promotes public awareness campaigns through the media, billboards, and presentations,” Dr. Lorenzo-Rivero says. “We coordinate the colonoscopy work through Project Access and its volunteer physicians.” The partnership has provided approximately 50 donated colonoscopy screenings annually for the last three years.
While most of these screening colonoscopies have reassured patients with a normal finding, Margaret Thompson had a different experience. VIM referred her for a colonoscopy coordinated by Project Access, and Dr. Lorenzo-Rivero happened to do the procedure.
“When Dr. Lorenzo-Rivero woke me up from the anesthesia, she told me that I had a polyp that was too big for the colonoscopy tool. She had to do emergency surgery to remove the polyp,” Margaret explained. Further testing showed that Margaret had Stage 3 cancer that had also spread into a lymph node.
“Dr. Lorenzo-Rivero absolutely saved my life, without a doubt,” she said. “I’ll have a colostomy for the rest of my life. It’s different, but it saved my life. I wasn’t ready to go!”
Margaret has also needed chemotherapy. Project Access has coordinated her care with Tennessee Oncology and Dr. Mark Womack. “I just finished my last treatment recently, and only time will tell if the cancer is fully gone,” Margaret said. “My recovery has given me my life back, and I don’t look or feel sick.”
In 2015, Project Access added a Making Healthy Choices preventive health component to its program, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Health and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. “The Choices program provides individualized guidance to each
patient to help connect them to community resources in six target areas,” Bond said. “Whether patients need help to stop smoking or to find low-cost ways to increase physical
activities, we have identified resources to help them on the journey to wellness.”
Bond said the partnerships with Volunteers in Medicine and the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation simply illustrate the relationships Project Access has with each of its partners, 970 volunteer physicians, and other health care providers who participate in the program.
“We are blessed with an extraordinary health care community,” Bond says. “Their skill is matched by their compassion, which allows us to keep fulfilling our mission to provide quality health care when it’s needed most.”