Spotlight on: Project Access

(above) Pictured: Tonya Williams, Program Director; Walter Puckett, MD, Medical Director; Joseph Cofer, MD, Medical Director and Project Access Founding Director; Rae Young Bond, Executive Director; Charles Sternbergh, MD, Medical Director; Robert Bowers, MD, Volunteers in Medicine Medical Director



(above) Andrea Stotts updates Project Access care coordinator Cherie Watson on her progress.


Few things are 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.

Eve Sims had two jobs but no health insurance when her deteriorating hip threatened her ability to continue being self-sufficient.

Jennifer Carmichael suffered from a skin condition for more than 40 years that caused multiple health problems, periodic intense pain, and debilitating outbreaks that sometimes controlled her life.

Andrea Stotts’ shoulder injury was making it impossible to continue working as a housekeeper at a local hotel. As a cancer survivor, she was overwhelmed at the idea of facing another health crisis.

Eve, Jennifer, and Andrea are just three of the 4,602 people who received help through the Hamilton County Project Access initiative in FY 2017-2018. Project Access is a community health partnership led by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, in partnership with the CHI Memorial, Erlanger, and Parkridge health systems and more than 40 other partner organizations.

While each of their stories has unique elements, the common thread is the volunteer physicians and health systems that donated care to enable them to continue full and productive lives. Today, Project Access includes 1,055 volunteer physicians who provide specialty care for patients from 16 health centers in the community.

Making the Difference

Eve has two jobs: She’s a nail technician and she cleans offices. She had not seen a doctor in 25 years when she became a patient at CHI Community Health Hixson and it became apparent that she needed a hip replacement if she wanted to continue working. Dr. Jason Rogers at Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics provided her care. Eve gushes, “Dr. Rogers saved my life and allowed me to be a productive person again.”

Jennifer’s story is similar. “I was treated for eczema since I was a baby, and I remember many days not wanting to go to school when lesions were visible,” she says. “My eczema controlled every aspect of my life – from how I dressed to whether or not I attended functions. Sometimes outbreaks were so bad and so painful that I could hardly move. Recently, I found myself unable to walk for days when the eczema moved to my ankles. It got to the point that I had to hobble into the emergency room to beg for relief.”



(above) Dr. Jason Rogers examines Eve Sims at the Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics


Melinda Garcia, nurse practitioner at CHI Community Health Hixson, suspected that the problem might not be eczema after all. She referred Jennifer to Project Access, which in turn referred her to Dr. Rodney Susong and his staff. With their expertise, she was diagnosed with plaque psoriasis, which now is being treated successfully.

“For 44 years, I was being treated for the wrong thing,” she says. “After all those years of suffering in pain, my ankles are now healed, and I can walk. Dr. Susong’s staff also helped me get my psoriasis medications for a year. I couldn’t be more thankful for Project Access and everyone who participated in my care. I feel blessed to have my long struggle come to an end through Project Access.”

Connie Love, practice manager for CHI Community Health Hixson, says Project Access is a significant benefit for their patients. “Approximately 49% of our patients are uninsured. Without the partnership with Project Access, many of them would never get the needed care for their acute and chronic health issues.”

Today, Andrea Stotts is finishing physical therapy and will soon return to work thanks to a successful shoulder surgery by Dr. Daniel Doty at UT Erlanger Orthopedics. “Without Dr. Doty’s help, I would not have been able to work much longer,” she says. “I am so grateful I can continue to be independent.”

Andrea also received treatment for throat cancer in 2007 and for skin cancer near her eye in 2017, both through Project Access.

“I certainly wouldn’t be working without Dr. Doty’s help, and I would likely have been dead without my cancer treatment through Project Access,” she says. “The doctors and hospitals have gone above and beyond in providing care. Project Access has literally given me my life back.”

An Invaluable Asset for the Community

Project Access was formed in 2003 by the Medical Society and Foundation in collaboration with area hospitals. For 15 years, the program has provided life-saving specialty care. The program’s panel of volunteer physicians has increased consistently since the program’s inception, and new health care partners within the community continue to provide growth and collaboration. 

“We are able to coordinate donated specialty care, laboratory services, and hospital care for 16 community health centers in Hamilton County,” says Tonya Williams, the program’s director.

Dr. Robert Bowers, medical director of the Volunteers in Medicine health center, says Project Access is invaluable to the patients of the Volunteers in Medicine free clinic. “Project Access provides medical and surgical services that are otherwise unavailable to our patients. The program actually increases our capacity by allowing us to get care for patients earlier in their illness, rather than having to wait until they were sick enough to get emergency care.”



“Every day, Project Access saves lives, helps people remain self-sufficient, and demonstrates the care and compassion that is a hallmark of our medical community.”

– Rae Young Bond, Executive Director





(above) Dr. William Oellerich, Chattanooga Heart Institute, with a Project Access patient


Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Medical Society and Foundation, says, “Physician support for the program has remained strong since day one. Project Access created a coordinated system that makes it easy for physicians and other partners to provide specialty care. Our patients don’t have access to health insurance and don’t qualify for any other form of assistance. They literally fall through the cracks in the health care safety net.”

Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero, a past Medical Society president, says she participates in Project Access because everyone deserves medical care, regardless of their insurance status. “Life is messy and complicated. Good folks sometimes find themselves without insurance, and medical problems do not wait for them to start that new job. If we all do our part, we can care for our community.”

Dr. Eugene Huffstutter, a rheumatologist with Arthritis Associates, shares, “My practice participates in Project Access because all of our doctors feel strongly about our community and want to support the citizens by improving their health. Before Project Access, we had a very fragmented system to care for the uninsured. This program allows a comprehensive approach to give back and improve overall community health in a cost-efficient manner.”

In the nearly 15 years since Project Access was created, the program has coordinated $178 million of donated health care services in Hamilton County. “We have been blessed by the continual engagement and leadership of a team of volunteer medical directors, including Dr. Joseph Cofer, who was the driving force behind Project Access; Dr. Walter Puckett; Dr. Charles Sternbergh; Dr. Mack Worthington; Dr. Marshall Horton; and Dr. Robert Bowers,” Bond says.

“Equally important to Project Access’ success is the ongoing and consistent participation of the CHI Memorial, Erlanger, and Parkridge health systems, as well as our other community partners,” Bond continues.

“Many people think that the Affordable Care Act meant that everyone has access to health insurance today,” Bond says. “Unfortunately, many people don’t qualify for help to get health insurance, so the need remains strong for programs like Project Access, Volunteers in Medicine, and our other community health clinics,” Bond shares. “Every day, Project Access saves lives, helps people remain self-sufficient, and demonstrates the care and compassion that is a hallmark of our medical community.”

Project Access By the Numbers

$178 Million 

Total value of donated health care provided to uninsured Hamilton County residents through Project Access

25:1 Return on Investment 

Each $1 spent to manage the program resulted in $25 of donated care


Volunteer physicians currently participating


Patients assisted in FY 2017-18 


Individuals who have been assisted since the program began 


Patients enrolled this month