Tags:What happens when a host of independent Western North Carolina physicians open their doors to a community of uninsured, low-income patients in need of free specialty care? The answer: a deluge.
In Buncombe County alone, the number of residents who were low-income and uninsured was an estimated 38,000 in 2005; three years later, that number swelled to nearly 78,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In any year it’s been estimated, Buncombe County numbers its uninsured at a higher level than both state and national averages.
Project Access was launched to help low-income, uninsured Buncombe County residents stabilize their health so that health insurance would be more attainable. Project Access physicians donate their services, providing everything from routine physicals to open heart surgery. The effort is run by the Western Carolina Medical Society (formerly known as the Buncombe County Medical Society), a group representing local physicians.
According to Jana Kellam, director of foundation programs for the society, the project was originally intended to be “a short-term, stop-gap measure, until the health-care system could be ‘fixed’.”
“That was 16 years ago,” Kellam said, and the program keeps growing. Physicians have always seen people for free, Kellam pointed out, but there was a need for a coordinated system to provide the specialty treatment front-line providers can’t give, such as cardiology, and many surgical procedures.
But this portion of the safety net is straining.
“The reality is, Project Access physicians are not able to see this many people,” Kellam said. “Last year they served 3,800; this year they’ve already seen over 4,000 – and the year’s not over yet.” The volume of patients referred to Project Access physicians more than doubled in the first six months of 2011, she says, compared to the same period in previous years. About that time, project directors started hearing from participating medical practices: the volume of patients sent to them for free care was becoming untenable.
Now the program is doing some retooling. See the full report at Carolina Public Press: