Hamilton County medical care program expanding service area to Bradley County

A program that since its inception has provided more than $217 million in donated, specialty medical care to uninsured, low-income residents of Hamilton County is expanding services to neighboring Bradley County and plans to serve additional parts of the region soon.

Southeast Tennessee Project Access, a consortium led by the Bradley and Chattanooga-Hamilton County medical societies, brings together resources and specialists in a variety of fields - including vascular, cardiology, oncology, orthopedics, asthma and allergy, rheumatology, dermatology and general surgery - beyond what a primary care provider can offer.

All care is provided at no cost to patients through volunteer physicians, other providers and partnering medical facilities, and care is coordinated through the nonprofit Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, according to a news release from Southeast Tennessee Project Access.

Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, described Project Access as "a clinic without walls." Care coordinators with the foundation accept referrals from local primary care providers, process the patients, thoroughly vet them to make sure they qualify, identify needed resources, coordinate appointments and make sure patients receive needed follow-up care.

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Aside from providing speciality care to people who need it, health care systems benefit because it's more cost effective to address problems upstream rather than in the emergency room, which is where Bond said many of the patients would end once their condition deteriorates into a crisis.

"Doctors and hospitals have always provided charity care for low-income, uninsured people, so Project Access makes it easier to treat it earlier, with shorter hospital stays, better outcomes and less cost," Bond said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's just a more compassionate but also efficient and effective way to provide care, and it can be done as part of the regular course of caring for patients instead of when you're on call and have to go in in the middle of the night because somebody's hernia has strangulated."

To qualify, patients must either reside in Hamilton or Bradley counties for at least 90 days prior to enrolling, have a current medical issue, meet certain income requirements and be unable to afford or qualify for health insurance, including TennCare. Patients' household income must be less than 150% of the federal poverty level, a calculation that comes out to $20,385 for an individual or $34,545 for a family of three.

Patients are referred to the program by a primary care provider, such as a doctor's office, federally qualified health center or clinic such as Volunteers in Medicine. If patients don't have a regular primary care provider, Project Access staff will work to find them one.

Once enrolled, Project Access patients are referred to providers just as if they had private health insurance to the network of partner physicians and facilities.

The Health Department clinic, Karis Community Health and Ocoee Regional Health are the primary care partners in Bradley County, and 14 health centers partner in Hamilton County, according to the release.

Dr. Josh Worthington, a surgeon and volunteer medical director for Project Access in Bradley County, said in the news release that the program has "enormous potential" to improve the quality of health in the Ocoee Region.

"Most importantly, this program will help an important group of people who are working hard, often at a couple of minimum wage jobs, but who aren't eligible for health care coverage. It helps people who all too often fall through the cracks," Worthington said.

Chattanooga launched Tennessee's first Project Access program in 2004 after local surgeon Dr. Joe Cofer spearheaded the effort. Regional programs now exist in Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and the Tri-Cities areas, Bond said.

Southeast Tennessee's program now has more than 1,150 volunteer health care providers. Last year, the program helped 3,529 people either receive needed care or directed them to services, according to data Bond shared.

CHI Memorial, Erlanger and Parkridge health systems, in addition to Kindred and Siskin hospitals, are partners in providing that care. Tennova Healthcare Cleveland is joining the partnership to provide care for Bradley County patients, according to the release.

Tennessee is among the states with the highest rate of uninsured residents, with nearly 15% of adults ages 19-64 lacking health insurance coverage as of 2019, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That percentage is even higher in Bradley County, where 18.7% of 19- to 64-year-olds are uninsured, according to Bond.

For more information about Project Access, visit www.hcProjectAccess.org or call 423-826-0269.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.