November 8, 2012

Uninsured patients benefit from Tarrant County program

Project Access officials say they hope to add more staff so they can expand program.

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A grassroots effort to provide volunteer medical care to uninsured Tarrant County residents hit its first-year goal of enrolling 100 patients, and organizers say they hope to expand the program in its second year.

Project Access Tarrant County connected 110 people to a growing network of volunteer providers, including physicians, hospitals and specialty clinics, according to the Tarrant County Medical Society.

“We think it’s only going to ... get better,” said Brian Swift, executive vice president of the medical society. “The reaction from the medical community has been great and we’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”

The medical society and Catholic Charities Fort Worth launched Project Access last year to promote better care and save taxpayer dollars by diverting indigent people away from expensive emergency services. Ideally, patients will get medical conditions treated quickly, allowing them to get back to work and get employer-paid health insurance plans. More than 20 percent of patients who got help have retained jobs or increased their work hours because of it, officials said.

The program is for people who meet income requirements and do not already get benefits from Medicare, Medicaid and JPS Connection, the county’s indigent health-care program. About a quarter of Tarrant County residents are believed to be uninsured.

Project Access is beneficial to charity care clinics, which now have a place to refer patients who need care beyond their capabilities, said Dr. David Capper, medical director at Christian Community Health Clinic and a project board member. Previously, those patients had little hope of finding that care.

“Now we are even getting laboratory and radiology services,” he said. “The project makes an amazing difference in our ability to deliver care to these people.”

Startup pains

Hospitals and service providers reacted enthusiastically to the project, said Katie Dyslin, Project Access executive director. More than 210 volunteer physicians provided 700 hours of medical care worth about $500,000 during the first year.

Of the 110 people enrolled in the project, 45 have already completed treatment, she said.

While more partners are sought, the biggest obstacle organizers encountered was a bottleneck in the patient screening and approval process. Project Access had only one staffer approving patients. So some qualifying patients haven’t gotten help simply because organizers don’t have the manpower to screen and approve them.

“Doctors call us and say, ‘I volunteered but you haven’t called,’ ” said Dr. Jim Cox, project medical director. “We tell them: ‘We haven’t gotten a patient through in your area of the county or for your specialty. But we will.’ It takes a lot of time and work to get one patient through the process.”

Organizers will focus on fundraising for additional staff during the second year, Swift said. The program relies on philanthropic funds and uses no government money. If the program can raise money for additional staff, they might set a goal of enrolling 250 people during the second year.

Before they get treatment, prospective patients must supply records regarding their medical conditions, which is sometimes a time-consuming process, officials said.

Approved patients have shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to get treatment, said Diana Martinez, medical case manager for Project Access. None have missed an appointment with a physician or specialty provider.

“This gives them hope they will get help and there is no way they would miss an appointment,” Martinez said. “They are very grateful.”

‘It’s been a blessing’

Amy Hooten is one of those patients.

The 43-year-old River Oaks mother of seven suffered digestive and other health problems that sometimes left her bedridden. Her health problems made it hard to keep a job so she didn’t have health insurance and, at times, felt like a prisoner in her home. “I really stopped leaving the house,” she said. “I couldn’t keep a job or work.”

Her primary care physician, Dr. Todd Richwine at Family Centered Medical Group in Fort Worth, had essentially volunteered his care for her family since she had lost health insurance. But he didn’t have the ability to do the all tests and surgery she needed.

Richwine, a Texas Health Physician Group member, has volunteered as a primary care physician for Project Access since its beginnings and helped her enroll in the program. Project Access arranged for her to get biopsies, lab work and, eventually, a hysterectomy.

The project is convenient for physicians because they see patients in their own offices rather than travel to charity clinics. Because Project Access coordinates the care for patients, those time-consuming tasks are not a disruption to the clinics that refer them.

“Project Access has the most efficient and convenient setup I’ve seen for physician volunteers,” said Richwine. who has volunteered at other community clinics. It “makes it easy to provide care to those who really need it and in a way that will not significantly affect care for others.”

Hooten said that her surgery has enabled her to go to nursing school.

“It’s been a blessing,” she said. “This program can help people get their lives back.”

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