Boosting health-care access

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An estimated 100,000 people in the Charlotte area don’t have health insurance, and one in 10 of them is expected to die prematurely because they lack access to health-care services.

Helping the region’s uninsured and underserved population get the health care they need is the focus of Community Health Services, a 47-year-old nonprofit that is expanding its services.

“Every day, so many more people are faced with the prospect of not having health insurance, being sick, not being able to afford it and not knowing who to turn to,” says Jen Algire, the group’s executive director. “We want to try and grow so the need can shrink.”

With a $1 million budget and 15 employees, Community Health Services delivers preventive health and wellness services to more than 15,000 people a year in Mecklenburg and Union counties.

The group’s six nurses and nurse practitioner, for example, care for 5,000 people a year at 25 offices in low-income housing complexes and other community-based sites.

The group plans this year to add three new offices — in Southside, a neighborhood of mainly working-poor blacks, and in two low-income Latino neighborhoods near uptown.

It also provides 10,000 people a year with immunization and screening services ranging from tuberculosis and flu shots to tests to detect prostate cancer or cholesterol levels.

And it offers modest financial assistance for prescription drugs, although the level of assistance is “not enough to meet the demand,” Algire says.

The group also has begun tackling the need for dental services, which Algire calls the “biggest public health issue that’s not being addressed in Charlotte,” by applying a fluoride varnish to prevent dental decay in low-income children.

To expand its services – including equipping its nurses with hand-held devices to speed record-keeping — Community Health Services is stepping up its fundraising.

The group, for example, has begun preparing itself to solicit big and deferred gifts that donors can set up through wills, estate plans and charitable trusts.

Because the group’s clients typically are not wealthy, however, it faces the challenge of raising awareness in the community about the role it plays.

“It’s awfully easy for those of us who have insurance to take it for granted,” says Mark Ayers, chairman of the organization’s board and senior broker at The Staubach Co.

Ayers chairs the organization’s two big fundrasing efforts – an annual drive that aims to raise $30,000 this year, double the total raised in 2001, and the annual Silver and Black Ball, to be held April 20 at the Mint Museum, that aims to raise $20,000, up from $15,000 last year.

“Our focus is to improve access to health care,” says Algire. “We help reduce the number of folks who show up at the emergency department unnecessarily.”

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