Originally created 10/09/01

Uninsured patients get focus



Alvin Sutherland knows how quickly things can change. A year after losing his job at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics, he found himself uninsured and with a painful infected ear. Fortunately, he also found the St. Vincent dePaul Health Center and nurse practitioner Pat Lynch-Hayes, who prescribed antibiotic ear drops.

Mr. Sutherland, 54, lost his health insurance after being shifted into janitorial job under MCG Health Inc. that he found unbearable. He also lost precious health insurance.

"Even when you're working you can't afford it," said Mr. Sutherland, who is working temporary jobs while searching for a more lasting position.

Augusta is working on finding a better system for providing better and more consistent care for the uninsured such as Mr. Sutherland. Richmond County Medical Society Project Access is patterned after a successful system in Buncombe County (Asheville), N.C., that was spearheaded by physicians there. It has since been replicated in Sedgwick County, (Wichita) Kan., and in Wake County (Raleigh), N.C., with other areas also working to implement it. Augusta officials are shooting to have the first patient in the system around Jan. 1, 2003, said James Lyle, the executive director of the Richmond County Medical Society.

"This is going to be a physician-led program, but it has the support of the hospitals," Mr. Lyle said. Asheville has about 500 physicians who volunteer blocks of time to see the patients, and a computer assigns them to physicians in a rotation so that the care is spread out. Augusta is buying the computer software but it will take about 18 months to get everything worked out, Mr. Lyle said.

The hospitals in Asheville provide in-patient care and diagnostic services, and it is hoped Augusta's hospitals will fill the same role, Mr. Lyle said. Three area providers - University Hospital, St. Joseph Hospital and Doctors Hospital - have expressed interest in being a part of the program, Mr. Lyle said. There have been some discussions with MCG Hospital and Clinics but no initial commitment from officials there, Mr. Lyle said.

The program would be open to those at 150 percent of the federal poverty level or below who do not have insurance and do not qualify for government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

"I think it is an excellent community service and a better way to handle" indigent care, said Dr. Andrew Lasser, the chief executive officer of St. Joseph Hospital.

Many of the details are still to be worked out, including what funding role the Augusta Commission may play. In Asheville, the county government provides about $500,000 for prescriptions written by the physician volunteers and filled by local pharmacies at cost, Mr. Lyle said.

The medical society has had some preliminary talks with some commissioners but has not yet asked for support, Mr. Lyle said. The commission currently provides about $965,000 to support a certified indigent care program at University Hospital, which doesn't come close to covering the estimated $3.4 million cost of the program this year. University is open to foregoing that funding if a better solution can be found, said J. Larry Read, the chief executive officer of University Health Care System.

Meanwhile, those working in the community clinics try to fill the gaps in care, such as finding a place for those who are not sick enough to be hospitalized but are too sick to be adequately cared for in a shelter, said Mrs. Lynch-Hayes of St. Vincent. She and Catholic Social Services are looking to lease the old Kerr Motors building on Broad Street as a shelter. She already has a small grant from the state and is hoping others will step forward to help.

"At least it's a first step," Mrs. Lynch-Hayes said. "I feel like the second one will come."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S NEXT: Augusta is buying the computer software to implement a new indigent care program, but it will take about 18 months to get the system operating, and funding sources have not yet been firmed up.