Another Year of Giving Back
Imagine you’re a young father of two, who works full-time at a chicken plant. You’ve been working through pain for months but finally decide you can’t bear it anymore, so you make a visit to a doctor who gives you bad news – it’s rectal cancer.
Or maybe you’re a woman in your 70s. Your legs have started hurting when you walk, and the pain has gotten to the point that it never subsides. Turns out you have peripheral artery disease, and you need surgery to remove plaque from your arteries or you’ll face dangerous consequences.
For thousands of individuals, these scenarios are all too real. “Every day, hard-working people are diagnosed with serious illnesses, but they have no insurance to cover the cost of surgery or treatment,” says Medical Society President and colorectal surgeon Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero. “For these individuals, Project Access can mean the difference between life and death.”
Organized in 2003 by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, in collaboration with CHI Memorial, Erlanger, and Parkridge hospital systems, Project Access helps uninsured and low-income Hamilton County residents receive the medical care they need. Since the first patient was treated in 2004, more than 18,350 patients have been screened and either enrolled in the program or referred to other appropriate community resources.
“For most physicians, we practice medicine because we are idealistic,” says Dr. Lorenzo-Rivero. “We believe every person should receive medical care, regardless of color, gender, faith, or other factors. We would like to not have to worry about insurance status or payment, but in today’s reality, a patient who cannot pay often cannot receive the treatment they need. Project Access allows us to care for these people without worrying about payment.”
Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Medical Society and Medical Foundation, shares, “Doctors and hospitals have always provided charity care, but it was done in a sometimes informal and ad hoc manner. Project Access created a coordinated charity care network that makes it easy for hospitals and physicians to participate and easy for patients to navigate a sometimes complicated health care system.”
Project Access, which raises operational funds each year with the Denim & Diamonds event, coordinates specialty care for 15 local primary care health centers. Currently, 997 physicians and other health care providers are part of the Project Access network, along with area hospital systems and more than 25 additional partners.
Before the program launched, patients often had to make repeat visits to their primary care clinic until a condition was bad enough that they could access specialty care through a visit to the emergency room.
Dr. Jason Eck, a spine surgeon at Chattanooga Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics, says, “Project Access provides an opportunity for patients without adequate health insurance the ability to obtain much needed medical care. In many cases, this can reduce their dependency on the emergency department. The program allows physicians to give back to our community by using our skills to provide medical care to those that might not otherwise be able to obtain it.”
“A key aspect of Project Access is the ability to help those in our own community in a way that is very seamless for physicians,” he continues. “All of the administrative details have been taken care of as well as arrangements for associated care at the hospital.”
Since 2004, Project Access has coordinated more than $162 million in donated health services from physicians and hospitals. “We provide care coordination to help patients find the specialties they need, and then we coordinate their care with hospitals or other service providers so they can be restored to health,” Bond says. Currently, there are 500 patients enrolled, and the program has helped 3,375 in FY 2016-2017.
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 an income below 150% of the poverty level.
Dr. Chris LeSar, a vascular surgeon with Vascular Institute of Chattanooga, shares, “The Project Access program is so important to our community because it fills the gap for people who sometimes fall through the cracks in the health care system. It provides a safety net to ensure that low-income residents in Hamilton County have the opportunity to be treated for illness or disease.”
One resident was recently aided by the safety net of Project Access. Self-employed, he had been without insurance for two years when the unthinkable happened. “Two months ago, I had a heart attack that resulted in quadruple bypass surgery and a month later, lung surgery,” he says. “Project Access has been a tremendous help to me and my wife. They answered our questions, assisted with forms, and more importantly, offered understanding hearts.” Now in the recuperation phase, he is thankful for everyone at Project Access. “Without their caring and loving assistance, we would have been forced to navigate what can be a very confusing and frustrating system alone.”
Without the specialty care he received, his health journey would have been significantly more difficult. Dr. Justin Calvert, the Medical Society president-elect and an interventional radiologist at Tennessee Interventional and Imaging Associates, notes that while there are several programs in town that offer primary care to uninsured patients, it’s still very difficult for these patients to receive specialty care. “This is where Project Access comes in. The program has a wide net of specialty care physicians who donate their time and services to those in need,” he says.
Dr. Munford Yates, a gastroenterologist with Galen Digestive Health, says he is part of Project Access to provide patients in greatest need with access to quality health care. “The program makes it easy to participate, and it shows mercy and compassion to those who need it.”
According to Dr. Alexander Sokohl, a physician with Associates in Ear, Nose, and Throat, the Project Access staff makes the experience for the patient as seamless as possible by laying the foundation for a strong network of physician-to-physician and patient-to-physician communication and coordinated health care. “Especially in those individuals who are uninsured or underinsured, these avenues created by Project Access bridge many of the gaps that would adversely affect patient care,” he shares.
Not only is Project Access helping the community by providing health care for those in need, it’s also adding a significant boost to the local economy. To provide services, supplies must be purchased and utilities and staff must be paid. According to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, charity services given away at hospitals and physician offices generated 581 jobs in Hamilton County, from April 2004 to August 2017, which equates to more than $25 million in labor income.
Involved in Project Access since the earliest days of the program, Dr. Phillip Pollock, a physician with Diagnostic Pathology Associates, shares, “The services provided through Project Access make an enormous difference in the physical and emotional health of individuals and in the well-being of their families. On the community level, by working with health care providers to improve the health of some of our most vulnerable citizens, Project Access makes for a more robust Chattanooga area.”