Medical outreach program may end

A 4-year-old program that offers free and discounted medical care for low-income, uninsured Mecklenburg County residents is running out of money and could close by December.

Physicians Reach Out has provided $18 million worth of free care since September 2004, according to director Byron Grimmett.

About 1,300 primary care physicians and specialists have served more than 5,000 patients in that time.

But startup grants of more than $1 million from several foundations, including the Duke Endowment, have run out or will soon. Without long-term funding, the program may have to close at the end of the year, Grimmett said.

“My hope is that somebody will say, ‘Wow, we can't let this happen,'” he said.

The program is modeled after Project Access in Asheville, which has been replicated across the country. Instead of going to free clinics, patients receive free care from doctors at their private practices.

Lately, about 100 new patients have enrolled each month. But in July, the program announced it will not take new patients again until October.

Staffing cuts are also planned. The program's $600,000 annual budget includes eight employees. Expenses are $50,000 a month, and there is only $18,000 in the bank, Grimmett said.

Interim funding is on its way, including a two-year grant of $170,000 from the Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation and $37,500 from Mecklenburg County.

“But that's not going to get us over the hump,” Grimmett said. “Preferably it would be a long-term commitment from somebody.”

Fundraising prospects

To try to keep the program running, the medical society plans to create a board whose sole job will be to raise money.

In the meantime, Grimmett is applying for new foundation grants and asking both Charlotte hospital systems to make monetary donations, in addition to the services they provide at a discount.

He also hopes to get fundraising help from Community Health Services, a 53-year-old nonprofit agency that serves low-income residents in need of health services.

Jen Algire, executive director of Community Health Services, said she'll discuss ideas with her board.

“We want to do whatever we can to make sure that we don't lose an important service for people who need it most,” she said.

Need for specialists

Word that Physicians Reach Out might fail has directors of the county's free clinics wondering where they'll go to find specialists for their patients.

“I refer patients every week to PRO,” said Kay Newsom, manager of the Free Clinic of Our Towns in Davidson. “I need them a lot to find a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy…. It really helps a lot.”

Nancy Hudson, executive director of Charlotte Community Health Clinic on Eastway Drive, said her free clinic referred 300 patients for specialized care last year. The number will be higher this year.

Without Physicians Reach Out, she said her volunteers would have to “call in favors from their doctor friends” when patients need cardiologists and other specialists.

Grateful patients

Patients who have benefited from the program also hope it can be rescued.

“It was a lifesaver for me,” said Etta Leftwich-Pharms, a 57-year-old administrative assistant. “You are treated just as if you have insurance.”

She enrolled in 2006 when she was temporarily unemployed after moving to Charlotte. “I've worked all my life and had benefits, but I didn't get a job right away,” she said. “And I had a medical problem that needed attention.”

She has high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis, but she had gone without medicines for two months to save money. As a result, she developed severe pain. “I could barely get out of bed. I didn't know what was happening.”

Once assigned to a doctor at Mecklenburg Medical Group, she received free drugs and got her symptoms under control.

She found a job, and she's no longer with Physicians Reach Out. She continues to see the same doctor, but now she's one of the patients with insurance.

Lesson learned

Mecklenburg County Medical Society, which launched the program, didn't start looking for long-term funding sooner because no one with the program had experience in fundraising, Grimmett said.

When he was hired in July 2005, he soon realized that foundations ask for “your long-term sustainability plan.”

Grimmett said he started raising concerns two years ago. “It just takes time to shift the structure of an organization.”

Indeed, successful nonprofits should start building a diverse funding base immediately, said Tim Seiler, at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

“If you're overly dependent upon one funder, or just a handful of funders, you're going to be highly vulnerable.”

Successful nonprofits also have “a strong, committed board that is active in the community and in fundraising.”

Dr. Hayes Woollen, former president of the medical society, said Mecklenburg doctors are proud of the program and want to see it continue.

“We are all working very hard to see how we can get some money. We think it's critical for this community.”