U.Va. Health System reaches
out to uninsured
Courtesy of Health
System Marketing and Communications
2002, U.Va. treated 27,000 indigent patients from every district
in Virginia, including 1,000 from Northern Virginia.
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
“It saves me a lot, I can tell you that,” said Sparrow.
“It’s a good thing when someone doesn’t have
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
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
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
“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.