While one of the most renowned medical institutions in the country trains future physicians and divvies out top notch services, it operates in the heart of an area with draconian health disparities and limited health care access.

Ron Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, says he “is willing to take responsibility” to improve health conditions for residents in neighborhoods surrounding his hospital and at a forum Feb. 2, he joined other Hopkins officials to divulge details about their efforts to step up to the plate.

They’ve formed The Access Partnership (TAP), in which Hopkins doctors volunteer free specialty-care services to uninsured residents living near Johns Hopkins Hospital and Bayview Medical Center.

To qualify, persons must be uninsured or underinsured due to low-income, live within seven target zip codes in East Baltimore and choose a Johns Hopkins primary care provider. The Hopkins physician, who accepts pay on a sliding scale, refers patients to specialty-care doctors, who render a score of services including cardiology tests, mammograms, CT Scans, surgeries and even chemotherapy treatments.

The specialty appointments are free, save a mandatory $20 appointment fee, which leaders say ensures clients are committed to receiving care.

But participants must fall into extreme income levels. A family of three should make under $18,000 to enter the program.

Program officials said they work hard to accommodate patients, even providing taxicabs and other transportation measures for those without vehicles.

Dr. Barbara Cook, director of TAP and former president of the Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, said many residents, unable to afford primary health services, seek care in expensive emergency rooms. “We as primary care physicians can provide that care at a lower cost and they will really feel like they’ve been taken care of,” she said.

The comprehensive care TAP provides for chronic conditions goes outside the realm of traditional free clinics, she added.

To date, TAP has processed 1,600 referrals and served 600 patients.

Dr. Sai Ma, a Hopkins scientist, held phone interviews with patients to assess satisfaction with TAP. Of the 214 participants contacted, a little over 90 percent professed complete satisfaction with the program. The main complaint was that TAP did not supply discounted medications.

Hopkins officials did not have a racial breakdown of TAP participants, but 90 percent of those evaluated in the survey were Black.

Peterson said TAP was birthed out of the failed Caroline Street Free Clinic that closed several years ago due to mismanagement and liability issues. Hopkins volunteers and medical students launched that center, “breaking down boundaries to provide specialty services,” and TAP will continue the legacy, he said. “Hopkins is creating an atmosphere for quality care.”

Several community advocates who attended the informational forum praised the program, but noted Hopkins should generate more publicity about the service. TAP began over a year ago, yet many qualifying residents are unaware of its existence, some asserted.

Still others said red tape and lengthy applications make it difficult for needy citizens to gain entry into TAP. “They (program officials) make it sound easy but access to this program is tedious,” said Leon Purnell, director of the Men and Family Center, which leads a similar community health program. “We need to make it more simplified.”

A handful of spiritual leaders – whom TAP officials say played a major role in the program’s formation – called on their colleagues to help promote the program and address Baltimore’s health disparities.

“The faith community needs to bridge the gaps between clinics, Hopkins and community association … to attract persons that are still utilizing emergency services so they will be engaged in this program,” said the Rev. Debra Hickman, Sisters Together and Reaching (STAR), a Christian group devoted to preventing HIV.

The Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, said he wants to see TAP expand to other Baltimore communities. “I just want to see where we go from here,” he said.

In response, Peterson said the TAP program will burgeon into more neighborhoods within a few years, adding he will urge other hospitals, that aren’t already, to engage in similar health outreach.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO