When Dr. Joe Cofer became president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society 20 years ago, he had two main goals.
The first one, his idea to establish a supreme court of sorts to "deal with the bad doctors" in Hamilton County, never got traction. The other went a long way toward earning the retired surgeon a 2022 Champions of Health Care Lifetime Achievement award.
That goal was the implementation of a program similar to one he'd noticed in Asheville, North Carolina -- Project Access, which aimed to provide preventative health care to low-income, uninsured residents. Cofer recalls joining his fellow 2022 Champions of Health Care honoree, cardiologist Mitch Mutter, to pitch the top executives at Erlanger, Parkridge and Memorial hospitals.
"Say that Mrs. Brown needs her gall bladder out," Cofer says. "You can do that as an outpatient, and she goes home. Or you see her later in the ER or ICU, and you can't turn her away.
"Let us help them before they get sick," he says, "and you save money."
Nearly 20 years later, according to the Medical Society's Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero, Project Access has "coordinated more than $217 million in donated health-care services for our low-income, uninsured neighbors."
In nominating Cofer for the Lifetime Achievement laurel, Lorenzo-Rivero writes that Chattanooga was home to the first Project Access in Tennessee and later provided technical assistance to other communities. Today, Project Access programs in and near Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Northeast Tennessee have recruited more than 6,200 volunteer physicians who have provided an estimated $740 million in donated services.
"We credit much of this to Dr. Cofer's vision and leadership," Lorenzo-Rivero writes.
Cofer, in turn, commends Rae Bond, the Medical Society's longtime executive director, for engineering the statewide success of Project Access. At the same time, though, he concedes that he didn't take the Medical Society's top job just to pad his resume.
"I've always been someone who thought that if I was given a position of leadership, I should try to do something with it," he says. "Use that position to affect change for the better."
Cofer also sought to achieve that end as a teacher. He served from 1995 to 2015 as surgery department program director at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga.
Dr. Ben Dart, who trained under Cofer and now serves as chair of Erlanger Medical Center's surgery department, said his mentor did nothing less in those 20 years than produce "an entire generation of practicing surgeons for the region."
"The role of program director is key in terms of mentoring students," says Dart, who also nominated Cofer for the Champions of Health Care award. "I had a chance to go to one of 20 programs, and I chose to come here because I believed in Dr. Cofer's vision.
"We're now competing with the Dukes and Vanderbilts for quality surgical residents, and that's due to the leadership of Dr. Cofer and others."
Dr. Joe Cofer
Born April 8, 1951, Beckley, W. Va.; married Juanita Wurtz Cofer in November 1978; two daughters, Jessica Ann Cofer LaFoy and Allison Jane Cofer; graduated McCallie School 1968, Georgia Tech 1972, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (pre-med) 1975, University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences, Memphis (MD) 1978