Nonprofit rescues Physicians Reach Out

A struggling program that offers medical care to thousands of poor, uninsured people has been rescued by another Charlotte nonprofit agency.

Community Health Services will take over Physicians Reach Out on Nov. 1. If the volunteer doctors' group had gone under, more than 2,000 people who lack health insurance would have lost a source of medical care.

About 1,300 primary care physicians and specialists volunteer with Physicians Reach Out. They have served more than 5,000 patients with about $20 million worth of free care during its four-year existence.

With high unemployment and economic uncertainty, medical services are more in demand than ever. About 100 new patients enroll in Physicians Reach Out each month. Instead of providing services at clinics for the indigent, physicians provide free care at private practices.

“It's been a lifesaver for me,” said a 51-year-old mother of two who has two part-time jobs. The woman, who asked not to be named, lost health insurance several years ago when she quit her job to help take care of her husband's aging parents.

Without the group, she wouldn't be able to have the screening colonoscopy she now has scheduled. “It would have been a real hardship on my family,” she said. “It would have to come out of grocery money or not get it at all.”

Physicians Reach Out, started by the Mecklenburg County Medical Society four years ago, announced in July it might close soon because it was out of money.

But Jen Algire, executive director of Community Health Services, said her board didn't want to see that happen. “If this program went away, that would be a huge loss to the community,” Algire said.

Community Health Services, which started 53 years ago, had been contracting with Physicians Reach Out to determine eligibility of applicants and manage patient enrollment. It will continue those and other administrative functions while also raising money for operations.

Eighty percent of Community Health Services' budget comes from private donations, including the United Way of Central Carolinas. The rest comes from fees paid by clients who get preventive care, such as immunizations or physical exams, at the agency's clinics.

Algire said she will cut $150,000 from the annual $650,000 Physicians Reach Out budget by eliminating two employees – director Byron Grimmett and an administrative assistant.

Grimmett, who will continue as a consultant during the transition, agrees with Algire that the change will allow “physicians to do what they do best, which is provide medical care. And it allows Community Health Services to do what it does best, which is programming and fundraising.”

Patients should see no difference, said medical society executive director Carolyn Scruggs. “We'll just become more efficient,” she said. “Community Health Services has a great deal more resources than we do, especially in the area of fundraising.”

Dr. Robert Schmitz, president of Charlotte Gastroenterology and Hepatology, said it would have been difficult for his group to provide free care without the Physicians Reach Out network because it includes hospitals where patients can get lab work and diagnostic testing.

“It's a way for us to give back a little bit to our community,” Schmitz said. “And it's a way to offer preventive health measures that people might not be able to afford at this time in our economy.”

Physicians Reach Out got into financial trouble because the medical society had not continued raising money after receiving startup grants of more than $1 million from several foundations, including the Duke Endowment. Algire's agency has already begun raising money for Physicians Reach Out. She said Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare are expected to donate a total of $150,000, in addition to providing medical services for free or at a discount.

Because of financial problems, Grimmett had suspended new enrollment in July. When it reopened in late September, demand was great. More than 110,000 Mecklenburg residents, or 15 percent of the population, is without health insurance.

“For every patient we enroll, we have two patients we're not able to serve,” Algire said.

Physicians Reach Out is modeled after Project Access in Asheville, which has been replicated across the country.

Grimmett is working with Union County doctors to start a program similar to Physicians Reach Out. He's also on the board of the statewide Care Share Health Alliance, which is working to encourage development of similar programs throughout the state.