Physicians reaching out

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Providing health care to low-income residents of Mecklenburg County who have no health insurance is the focus of a new program of the Mecklenburg County Medical Society.

Clients eligible for the society’s new Physicians Reach Out program are assigned to physicians, who provide free care.

Clients also receive free medications at most local pharmacies, as and discounted services at Carolinas HealthCare System or Presbyterian Healthcare.

While existing clinics in Mecklenburg County provide some resources for the uninsured, “the need is greater than the current capacity,” says Ann Blackwell, a former administrator at Presbyterian Healthcare who coordinates the new program.

More than 875 specialists and primary-care physicians have volunteered to treat patients in their offices or at free health clinics.

The program, which has received $400,000, mainly in grants, and started enrolling patients in August, aims to enroll 1,000 people in its first year, and 5,000 in its first three years.

The program is based on an initiative launched in 1996 by the Buncombe County Medical Society, which has supported the creation of similar efforts in more than 20 communities in North Carolina and other states.

The Mecklenburg County Medical Society has teamed up with five organizations for the new program.

To enroll, individuals or agencies that work with them can submit applications, including proof of income and residency in the county.

Physicians Reach Out will submit all applications to the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, which will screen them to see if the applicants are eligible for Medicaid.

Applicants not eligible for Medicaid, and who are not active patients in existing programs providing health care for low-income people, will be considered.

Patients will be assigned to a physician and to one of the two hospitals, and will get a Physicians Reach Out card with information about their physician and their pharmacy and hospitalization benefits.

The Medical Society, which will pay for medicine for patients enrolled in the program, has negotiated with Premier Pharmacy Plan in Spartanburg, S.C., which is providing the pharmacy benefit, for discounts.

Community Health Services, a member agency of United Way of Central Carolinas, will provide orientation and case management for people enrolled in the program.

The agency, which will help patients understand their benefits and responsibilities, such as keeping appointments and visiting their doctors rather than going to emergency rooms, also will administer health self-assessments by patients.

Those assessments will be administered based on training provided by UNC-Charlotte, which will evaluate the program.

New Jersey-based National Benefits Administrators, which has a regional office in Charlotte, will manage medical claims for the program, which will be written off by participating physicians and discounted by the two hospitals.

“The goal is to have almost all of these encounters be as if they are insured patients,” Blackwell says.

The program has received $250,000 from The Duke Endowment, $39,000 from the Mecklenburg Medical Alliance Endowment supported by spouses of Medical Society members, and grants from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation; Lincoln Health Care Foundation; the state Office of the Attorney General; and United Way of Central Carolinas.

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