Cape Fear HealthNet part of push to expand access to medical care


Wilmington’s public hospital provided $12.9 million in free health care last budget year. That figure doesn’t account for more than $30 million in write-offs termed “bad debt,” a catch-all phrase that includes people who didn’t qualify for charity care but who couldn’t afford to pay their hospital bill.

And while your health care costs are going up, in part because of cost shifting, many uninsured and under-insured Cape Fear area residents cannot afford even basic care. Inequity is built into the system, and it’s straining the resources of providers, patients and employers. Despite the loud assault on health care reform, few could argue convincingly that our system doesn’t need a shot of something. That means being willing to look outside the traditional, fragmented health care delivery system to fill the gaps, little by little.

Health care reform on a national level has gotten a lot of attention. But the most immediate solutions are likely to come from within our communities, where the people who need help are more than statistics used to support a political argument.

The Cape Fear region is fortunate to have a number of organizations that have worked tirelessly to provide affordable health care to the under-served. St. Mary’s and Tileston clinics in Wilmington and New Hope Clinic in Boiling Spring focus on caring for uninsured people, who often put off seeking help because they cannot afford it. The New Hanover County Health Department, New Hanover Community Health Center and New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s clinics serve uninsured patients and Medicaid recipients, who often have difficulty finding a private physician that will take the government insurance plan.

But these medical resources, while a godsend, are overstretched. New Hanover Regional’s clinics are so overwhelmed that they cannot take on new patients; the other clinics too are overflowing. And still there are people in our community who cannot get the health care they need. Many of them seek help in the emergency room – an expensive and inefficient way to handle mild illnesses and routine medical problems.

The aforementioned organizations and a number of other human services agencies came together to form Cape Fear HealthNet, with a mission of bridging the gaps in our health care system and helping people find a “medical home.” Last week, the group opened its “episodic” care clinic, which will rotate among St. Mary’s, Tileston and Wilmington Health Access for Teens to take walk-ins.

But beyond treating the flu, sprains and other ailments, the clinic will serve as an access point into the health care network in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. The goal is to refer patients who visit the new clinic to a more permanent “home” for medical care.

Note that these groups are working together, even though each has its individual mission. That is the key. It is in their best interest to help stretch limited resources as far as possible while helping more people get the care they need.

This didn’t happen at the federal level, and it didn’t involve a heated battle to score political points. The motivation and the effort came from right here in the Cape Fear region, using mostly private grants and some state money. Local residents and local health care leaders saw a need and set about trying to meet it.

That is how things get done. Washington, take note.

For more information about the new clinic, call 777-4242.

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