Sitting in a chair, pulling on an exercise band during her physical therapy, Carol Cerezo reels off a half dozen doctors she is seeing through Richmond County Medical Society Project Access.
“If it weren’t for Project Access, I couldn’t get those guys,” said Cerezo, 50, a once very active collections contractor and volunteer now waiting to qualify for disability after a fall. “I thank God for this program.”
When it was formed in 2002, Project Access was going to be a solution to sometimes contentious indigent care funding negotiations between University Hospital and the Augusta Commission. Those costs reached nearly $5 million in the late ’90s, but the county was only paying about half that amount.
Project Access was based on a successful North Carolina program that paired uninsured patients with physicians who volunteered blocks of office time to see them and hospitals and clinics that agreed to provide services. Augusta agreed to start the program on $400,000 at University’s request and with the urging of Dr. Terrence Cook, then the chairman of the Richmond County Board of Health. Cook is now president of Project Access and chairman of its board of directors.
“We’ve been able to find for them pretty much of a medical home, either with our private-practice, primary-care doctors or one of the indigent-care clinics in town,” Cook said. “We then, beyond that, provide them with access to medicines.”
The program covers the first $750 of medicine but also tries to get patients signed up for pharmaceutical companies’ prescription assistance programs. Last year, the program got $150,000 worth of that assistance, said Executive Director Dan Walton.
For Cerezo it means access to a laundry list of medications for problems ranging from pain to insomnia to vertigo. It also means a referral to physical therapist Bonnie Cothran of Doctors Hospital.
“Your motion is definitely increased in your neck,” Cothran told her.
“When I got here, my neck wouldn’t move,” Cerezo said.
Project Access is currently serving about 400 people, down from nearly 700 in recent years because of hard economic times, Walton said.
“Since the economy has gotten a little bit better, maybe the job market improving over the last year or so, we have seen (a big) drop in our participants, which is a good thing because we were up to almost 700,” Walton said.
That puts a strain on its providers, particularly the specialists, he said. The program already struggles to meet needs in gastroenterology, orthopedics and neurology, Walton said. Part of its problem has been lack of participation by physicians at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics because previous administrators would not waive a facility fee that is added to patient visits, he said. But recent talks might bring them into the program, Walton said.
“Within the last few months (the health system) has come to the table, has come to us,” he said. “So we are in talks, and I do really believe in the very near future they will come back on board.”
Cook said he has discussed the issue with Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz and Medical College of Georgia Dean Peter Buckley, and Buckley “tells me it is coming,” he said. “We hope to get that approved at some point.”
In the meantime, the program has taken some cuts in funding from Augusta and is now down to about $340,000, which it tries to make the most of.
“We’ve been very tight with the money,” Cook said. “We try to stretch the dollars.”
And he believes it has paid off for the county and for Columbia County, where the program was expanded in 2007.
“It really has paid dividends in terms of restoring people to health,” Cook said. “Many times, if we can get them treatment for a condition, they can go back to work. They are healthy enough to return to work and hopefully obtain a job that does provide a health insurance benefit.”