Jonathan Taussig was lifting a sleeper sofa when he felt the sharp pain of a hernia bulge in his abdomen.
But the 35-year-old Arlington man didn't have health insurance. So he kept delivering furniture and groceries for a local charity until another hernia developed on the other side of his stomach.
"It's a problem because I shouldn't lift anything heavy anymore, and that's how I make deliveries," says Taussig, a married father of five.
Taussig is now preparing for surgery as one of the first patients accepted into Project Access Tarrant County, a grassroots network of volunteer healthcare providers working to help the uninsured.
The Tarrant County Medical Society and Catholic Charities Fort Worth spearheaded the project, which relies on donated services from primary-care physicians, specialists, hospitals and other providers.
Through referrals from doctors and charity care clinics, Catholic Charities screens potential patients, and the medical society matches them with volunteer physicians. Taussig's hernia surgeries will be performed in January by Dr. David Dyslin, an Arlington general surgeon.
More than 200 physicians and 14 hospitals, along with charitable clinics and radiology, laboratory and anesthesia service providers, have joined the effort.
"We have a healthcare crisis," said Brian Swift, executive vice president of the medical society. "We truly believe the best solutions are going to come locally from the people who know best about healthcare -- physicians, hospitals, and all the providers who see patients every day."
If successful, project officials said, the effort should lead to better care and save taxpayers money by directing indigent people away from expensive emergency room services. In 2009, nearly a quarter of Tarrant County adults lacked health insurance.
The plan involves no government money, just philanthropic funds and donated time, organizers say.
Many physicians in Tarrant County already provide charity care by treating patients who lost jobs in the bad economy, according to the medical society.
Specialists also often volunteer at charity care clinics, but their time isn't always spent efficiently, Swift said. Project Access allows those physicians to volunteer their services in a more coordinated fashion.
"Say I happen to be a neurologist, and I volunteer one day a week at a local clinic," Swift said. "What are the chances that a neurology patient is probably going to show up the day I am there? Not very good."
Reaction from physicians has largely been positive, program officials said. The medical society has more than 3,000 physician members, though that figure includes retirees and student doctors. Physicians chose how many Project Access patients they will treat in a year.
So far, doctors have offered to treat one to 50 patients. The average is 10 to 15.
For the first year, organizers have set a goal of helping 100 patients. That figure might sound "a little piddly" unless you consider all the work that goes into coordinating care for each patient, said Dr. Jim Cox, the project's medical director and former president of the medical society.
"Say you are doing a hernia operation," he said. "You are not just talking about fixing the hernia, you talking about getting space in a hospital or surgical center, anesthesiology, nursing, the doctor, recovery, the needed medications -- it is actually a tremendous amount of resources."
Dyslin said he joined the program because it has a worthwhile mission.
"Patients fall through the cracks," he said. "You see it happen."
The Project Access concept is new to Tarrant County, but other communities have similar projects. Dallas County has had one for 11 years.
The Dallas project has linked as many as 3,600 patients to services from a pool of 4,000 volunteer physicians in a year, officials said.
The idea of starting a similar program in Tarrant County has floated around for years, officials said. But the initiative didn't begin until Catholic Charities and the medical society started building the network last year.
The Sid W. Richardson Foundation, Amon G. Carter Foundation and Martha Sue Parr Trust liked the concept and pledged a total of $650,000 over three years to pay for staff salaries, computers and transportation costs for patients.
Catholic Charities was a natural partner for the project because it already pays for charity care through its St. Joseph Health Care Trust, officials said. The trust pays for one-time services, such as X-rays or 30-day supplies of medications.
Funds are limited. Paying for surgery, for example, is far too costly, said Lori Kennedy, program manager of the trust.
"With Project Access, we are able to take them to the next level of care," Kennedy said.
Since the project was launched in early September, 68 patients have been referred to the program and 20 have already qualified, officials said. To be eligible, patients must meet income requirements and not receive benefits through Medicare, Medicaid or JPS Connection, the county indigent health-care program.
Instilling a 'sense of responsibility'
Project officials hope the effort will expand as more physicians and agencies join. Taussig said he wound up in Dyslin's office after mentioning his hernias to some people at Mission Arlington. They referred him to Catholic Charities.
"Kind of blew me away," Taussig said. "I wouldn't be able take care of this otherwise, so I would just be stuck living with these [hernias]."
Swift said a primary goal of the program is to help people resolve medical problems so they can get back to work and get on an employer-paid insurance plan. Each patient must pay a $25 fee every six months and cannot miss appointments without good reason.
"We have to instill a sense of responsibility," he said. "The goal is to not let health issues become reoccurring problems. That's how we get people back into the workforce and keep these health problems from getting worse and becoming a drain on the healthcare system."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689