History of Project Access in Wichita

In 1998, Paul Uhlig, MD, a fourth generation Kansas physician and a cardiothoracic surgeon, set the wheels in motion to improve access to health care for the 50,000 uninsured living in Wichita-Sedgwick County.

The community had been trying to address the problem for some time. However, the Sedgwick County indigent care services, established by dedicated health care professionals, were uncoordinated and struggling.

It was a situation in need of a remedy.

The inspiration for a new solution was Project Access, a successful health care model launched by the Buncombe County Medical Society in Asheville, North Carolina.

The idea behind Project Access is one of collaboration — everybody brings something tangible to the table to make it work. The program focuses on addressing health needs of the uninsured by creating a closer relationship between primary care clinics and specialty care providers.

This was clearly an idea worth exploring for Wichita-Sedgwick County. Leading the way would be the community’s physicians and many local leaders.

Dr. Uhlig first shared the Project Access model with the Medical Society of Sedgwick County (MSSC) Board of Directors.  Board members were immediately responsive and encouraged further study. Joining them in learning more about Project Access were hospital administrators, potential community funders, City Council members, County Commissioners, community clinic directors, the County Health Department’s head, pharmacists, and representatives from the state’s Medicaid Agency — the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS). Thus, a new collaborative was born.

Starting in September 1998, over the course of several trips to North Carolina, collaborative members learned the details of the Asheville model and began to build relationships that could help create and nurture a local Project Access program.

Back in Wichita, they shared what they discovered and began to formulate the concepts of coordinating care for the uninsured in this new project:

  • Physicians would provide services to the uninsured without the fear of being overwhelmed by numbers.
  • Clinics could better access a full range of specialty care for their low-income patients.
  • Hospitals would contain costs for their uninsured patient population because care would be better coordinated.
  • The community would benefit from a healthier, more productive workforce.

By the end of 1998, the Project Access model received unanimous support from the MSSC’s board members. They recommended that the Central Plains Regional Health Care Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the Medical Society, serve as the program’s administrative agency.

On April 15, 1999, before an audience of 75 local leaders at a community forum, Alan McKenzie, director of Asheville’s Medical Society, described Project Access and its evolution. With this model as a guide, many of the community’s fears were allayed.

According to Dr. Michael Bates, then-MSSC president, “This is a simple solution in which everyone helps a little and everyone wins — our community becomes healthier and, most of all, patients who need help receive the care many of us take for granted.”

On June 1, at a joint meeting, the Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission were officially introduced to the Project Access model. All the key players attended the meeting — the city and county managers, executive directors of the Medical Society and United Way of the Plains, hospital CEOs, pharmacists, even the newspaper publisher.

It took the two governing bodies less than an hour to approve $500,000 to support Project Access’ prescription medication program.

“When the medical community showed support, it just fell into place,” observed Chris Cherches, the late Wichita city manager.

Project Access was now on the fast track to becoming operational with a launch deadline of September 1, 1999. Dr. Uhlig set the date when Project Access would serve its first patient to create a specific, foreseeable goal and to assertively push the community towards a realization of that goal.

An Operations Council was soon formed, under interim director, Betsy Bloxham, and it met once a week in intense meetings. A monthly newsletter was created to keep all the partners informed.

September 1 arrived. Under newly-hired program director Anne Nelson, Project Access officially opened its doors, starting at the smallest community care clinic. The program continued the process of adding one clinic a month to avoid overwhelming any of the participants. Project Access was off and running and heading in the right direction.