Feb. 13-26, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 3
Back Issues
IN THIS ISSUE
A Bold Plan
Turner: ‘The journey continues’
Raising the Bar
Headlines @ U.Va.
Research yields insight into working families
Team designs computer model to predict pathways of blood vessels
Yvonne Hubbard levels the playing field
Board discusses diversity, tuition and more
Faculty Actions
‘Traditions of Exemplary Women’
U.Va. Health System reaches out to uninsured
Linda Layne discusses pregnancy, feminism and health
Poet-critic Alan Williamson here as Rea Visiting Writer
‘Dada DJ’ and friends spin the vinyl Feb. 17
Manned Mars missions on the horizon
U.Va. Health System reaches out to uninsured
Courtesy of Health System Marketing and Communications
In 2002, U.Va. treated 27,000 indigent patients from every district in Virginia, including 1,000 from Northern Virginia.

By Lauren Fischer

Monica Sparrow has been unable to work since 2001. Diagnosed with a tumor two years ago, the Charlottesville resident has been unable to return to her job in the fast food industry because of frequent headaches and poor peripheral vision.

Fortunately, a lack of medical insurance has not prevented Sparrow, 21, from receiving care.

Her radiation treatments and occasional MRIs have been paid for by U.Va.’s Indigent Care Program. The program helps cover the cost of needed medical treatment for seriously ill Virginia residents who are uninsured and unable to pay for care on their own.

“It saves me a lot, I can tell you that,” said Sparrow. “It’s a good thing when someone doesn’t have the insurance.”

In 2002, U.Va. treated 27,000 indigent patients from every district in Virginia, including 1,000 from Northern Virginia, said Larry Fitzgerald, chief financial officer of the U.Va. Health System.

During that year, the Health System incurred a cost of $53.7 million to treat indigent patients and received $42.6 million from state and federal governments to partially cover the cost. The Health System paid the remaining $11.1 million.

“Some people refer to the program as free care,” said Fitzgerald. “Free care doesn’t exist, because someone has to pay for it.”

Indigent care has been part of the “fiber and mission” of the U.Va. Medical Center since the early 1980s — or as long as most employees can remember, he said.

“We operate under the premise that the Health System has a legal obligation to treat all patients, even if they can’t pay,” Fitzgerald said.
U.Va. and the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, the two largest teaching hospitals in the state, together provide 49 percent of all indigent medical care in Virginia. Private hospitals across the state usually refer uninsured patients who need expensive, medically necessary treatment to the “safety net facilities” at U.Va. and VCU, Fitzgerald said.

In addition to treating patients at the Medical Center in Charlottesville, U.Va.’s Health System offers a number of programs to patients in other parts of the state. These include the Office of Telemedicine, which in recent years has offered medical consultations to nearly 6,000 Virginians via video connections to outlying medical offices. The technology also offers applications in home health care and interactive distance learning via videoconference.

Other outreach activities include the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps’ annual health care events. Last July, the volunteer corps, which includes many U.Va. medical faculty members, offered free clinical care — physicals, vision tests and dental exams —to nearly 5,000 medically underserved patients in southwestern Virginia.

In Charlottesville, both inpatients and outpatients who qualify can reap the benefits of the Indigent Care Program, said Brent McGhee, administrative manager of patient financial services. A financial screening evaluates a patient’s annual income and number of dependents and assets, such as cars and real estate.

Uninsured patients are considered indigent when their household income is 200 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines.

In addition to meeting the income qualification, a patient’s assets cannot exceed a given threshold. A patient who qualifies as indigent receives a write-off on medical bills, ranging between 30 and 100 percent. The level of the write-off is set according to a sliding scale tied to income.

The program also can resolve medical bills accrued months before the indigency qualification was granted, McGhee said. Patients and their families typically qualify for a period of one year, at which point financial advisers re-evaluate their qualifications.

While the University’s Indigent Care Program covers acute illnesses, such as appendicitis, it does not pay for elective procedures, such as a tummy tuck or a nose job, Medical Center officials said.

“The patients are very happy to have professionals treat them for medically necessary care, and we are happy to offer them the same care that we would give them if they were the wealthiest in Virginia,” Fitzgerald said.

The financial forecast for the program, however, is cloudy. Within the next two years, a statewide shortfall of $28 million is expected, according to a study commissioned last year by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. If not resolved, inadequate funding will threaten Virginia’s future ability to provide medical services and equipment to the state’s most financially vulnerable patients.


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