A Place of Hope for Thousands
Hope may only seem like a four-letter word, but for patients of Project Access, that simple word can be the motivation for getting their lives back.
In 2020, Chris Coleman began to have severe pains in his stomach. Because he was unable to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, he didn’t have access to health insurance and visited CHI Memorial Community Health in Hixson to figure out what was wrong. The self-employed construction worker was referred to Project Access and was matched with a specialist to diagnose and treat his medical needs.
“I had to go somewhere,” Coleman says. “I didn’t draw unemployment from the state. Project Access was my only option.”
Project Access is a nonprofit coordinated care network between doctors, hospitals, healthcare providers, and community clinics that provides donated specialty healthcare for residents in low-income jobs with no access to health insurance. The program also provides care to people who don’t qualify for federal or state programs such as TennCare and Medicaid but cannot obtain insurance.
Coleman was referred to Dr. Donald Hetzel with Galen Digestive Health. After a colonoscopy found numerous polyps, Dr. Hetzel was able to successfully remove them.
“Without Project Access, I might be dead,” says Coleman. “Dr. Hetzel said I was days away from expiring. I’m so grateful for the doctors who donated this care.”
Since its inception in 2004, Project Access has made healthcare available to more than 22,000 low-income, uninsured residents of Hamilton County. More than $213 million of free healthcare has been donated by more than 1,150 volunteer physicians and providers through the program, which is coordinated through the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation of Chattanooga.
“Without Project Access, I might be dead. Dr. Hetzel said I was days away from expiring. I’m so grateful for the doctors who donated this care.”
“As a physician, treating patients is our passion no matter what difficulties the patient may be dealing with in their normal life,” says Dr. Jon Hildebrand, an ophthalmologist with Eye Specialists of Chattanooga. “Project Access allows us to do this in a quality matter, but most importantly, it finds that much-needed specialist for the patient. It is my honor to be a Project Access volunteer provider.”
Dr. Harish Manyam of The Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute applauds Project Access’s ability to unify the medical community around a common purpose.
Project Access coordinates specialty care services for patients referred to the program by local primary care providers and clinics. Patient care coordinators make sure the patient meets program requirements and then help find the specialists they need. “If procedures or other services are needed, care is coordinated with hospitals or other service providers so the patient’s health can be restored,” says Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Foundation.
“Doctors and hospitals have always provided charity care, but it was done in a sometimes informal manner,” Bond says. “Project Access created a coordinated charity care network that makes it easy for hospitals and physicians to participate while easing the navigation of a sometimes complicated healthcare system.”
To be eligible for Project Access, patients must have a current medical condition, be uninsured, be ineligible for health insurance and other health benefits, and have an income 150% below the poverty level.
Before the program started, patients would often have to visit their primary clinic until the condition was bad enough that they would have to access specialty care through a visit to the emergency room, according to Joel Henderson, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine (VIM), a Chattanooga-based free primary health clinic.
“VIM’s health ministry and Project Access have one shared goal: to be able to provide quality care for every person who needs and wants it,” Henderson says. “Without Project Access, our patients wouldn’t have access to local specialized care. Since VIM opened its doors in 2005, well over 75,000 patient visits have been provided, valued at more than $24 million in clinic rates and $109 million conservative ER rates. Our partnership with Project Access is a key component in supporting this continuity of care for those in the greatest need.”
Dr. Jon Hildebrand, ophthalmologist and Project Access volunteer, sees patients for a variety of eye issues.
Project Access also maintains close partnerships with other community health centers, including Erlanger’s federally qualified Southside, Dodson Avenue, and Premier health centers; Hamilton County Health Department clinics; CHI Memorial Community Health in Hixson; LifeSpring Community Health; and Cherokee Health Systems, among others.
Angel Moore, CEO of Erlanger Community Health Centers, says Project Access makes an enormous difference to their patients. “They effectively and efficiently connect our uninsured primary care patients with the specialty care they need, which actually gives us more capacity to care for additional primary care patients. It is a beautiful partnership to provide compassionate care.”
The Homeless Health Care Center is another clinic partner. “Project Access is extremely valuable in serving our homeless population as they connect our patients to the specialty care they need most. If it weren’t for Project Access, our patients would not have the opportunity or hope for a healthy future,” says Karen Guinn, Homeless Health Care Center executive director. “The staff at Project Access is a pleasure to partner with, as their care and concern for the individualized needs and follow-through for each patient only comes from the heart.”
Project Access works with partners to provide dignified care to some of the most vulnerable in our community.
According to Dr. Rodney Susong, a local dermatologist with Susong Dermatology and Project Access volunteer, “Project Access is so important to our community because it fills the gap for people who sometimes fall through the cracks in the healthcare system. It provides a safety net to ensure low-income residents have the opportunity to be treated for their ailments. Susong Dermatology is proud to support Project Access in its endeavors.”
For many specialized practices, treating Project Access patients is a team effort. From the staff who check the patient in at the front desk to the doctor who performs the procedure, everyone plays a role.
Dr. Jeffrey Mullins of CHI Memorial Urology Associates is one of many CHI Memorial specialists who volunteers with Project Access.
“Caring for all of our patients is a team effort – Project Access isn’t excluded,” says Dr. Jay Jolley, a spine specialist with Southeastern Spine · Brain · Joint. “Our practice uses every asset available to meet the needs of the Project Access patient from the first appointment to the last follow-up. Working with physician assistants and other advanced practice providers allows me to meet the surgical needs of the patient while simultaneously ensuring that all patients continue to receive the timely and personalized treatment that they need. Project Access patients are treated just like any patient and receive the utmost respect and care from our staff. They deserve nothing less.”
Echoing Dr. Jolley’s comments, Dr. Coleman Arnold, a general surgeon with University Surgical Associates, believes it takes a village.
“I’ve been involved with Project Access since the beginning because I believe everybody can do their part, and I’m just one of the many local providers trying to do my part for our neighbors in need,” he says. “If everybody does a little bit, we can get the work done.”
Dr. Harish Manyam, a cardiologist with The Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute, says, “Project Access continually reminds me of the reasons I became a physician. It is a pure and really direct form of patient care that has unified the medical community around a common purpose.”
A Project Access patient, who asked to remain anonymous, shares the praise of Chris Coleman for the program. Through Project Access, she recovered from two bouts of cancer and is currently being treated for an infection in her hip brought on from a weakened immune system.
“When you are sad, you try to find the blessings to make this short time called life beautiful,” the patient says. “Project Access provided that blessing. I am alive because of it. I couldn’t have paid for my interventions. I would be dead. I always pray for God to take care of the doctors and their patients. They are the true blessings.”
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