When Victoria Ravello-Arias moved to the United States from Peru in 2001, it wasn’t for medical care. She was looking for a new start and opportunities for her family. Ultimately, the move did more than set her on a new path. It ended up saving her life. Shortly after Victoria arrived in Richmond, the 63-year-old grandmother of eight was diagnosed with cancer.
“I remember Victoria like it was yesterday,” recalls Michael Armstrong, M.D., of Richmond ENT, who saw Victoria because of a referral through a program called Access Now. “She first came to me with sinusitis, but we discovered cancer in her sinuses. She had no insurance and no chance for the type of professional care needed, but she required surgery and we went straight to work. Through a team effort with Access Now, we saved her life.”
The key factor in Victoria’s success story is the Richmond-based program Access Now, which provides access to specialty medical care for patients who are seeking health services in free clinics – patients who would otherwise go without care. Marilyn Nicol, program manager with Access Now, describes the nonprofit as “a free clinic without walls” since it acts as a referral hub, matching specialty medical care physicians throughout Richmond who have offered their services as part of the program with patients who are in dire need of healthcare.
“It’s our goal to eliminate any barriers to medical care that are in front of the patient,” Nicol says. “Those barriers typically come when specialty care is needed, but we’ve figured out a solution that has proven to be successful.”
In fact, the program has five years of success on its books, all because there was a need and local doctors were ready to provide a solution.
The story began in 2008. The Richmond Academy of Medicine (RAM) was approached by several free clinics that wanted to see a coordinated effort in directing patients who needed specialty care such as dermatology, general surgery, ophthalmology, orthopedics, gynecology, and other services, to doctors throughout Richmond who had a passion for serving those in need.RAM personnel began working to create a program similar to Project Access, a national model for directing patients with no health insurance to specialty physicians. Physicians from the greater Richmond area were polled to gauge interest in launching a similar program locally that would be called Access Now. More than 300 doctors signed up initially. Today the program has more than 900 doctors as part of its network.
To qualify for the Access Now program, an individual must have an annual income of less than $22,980. For a family of four, annual household income cannot exceed $47,100.
Funding for Access Now is provided through donations and grants and goes to cover the administrative aspect of the organization since patients do not actually receive care from Access Now or RAM, but are directed to care. To date, the organization has provided more than $22 million in in-kind services.
Aside from the numbers of patients receiving care and the dollar value attached to services donated, Frank Cerniglia, M.D., vice president of Children’s Urology of virginia, says there’s something more substantial happening with physicians across the region who are involved with Access Now.
“For the physicians, whether they see one patient or one hundred during the year, there’s an overall sense of accomplishment and feeling of good will,” says Dr. Cerniglia, who has been committed to Access Now since its inception, providing pediatric urology services when needed.
“Access Now is not only a catalyst for care, but serves as an opportunity for us [physicians] to give back to our local community in a coordinated and organized way that might not otherwise be able to happen,” Dr. Cerniglia says. “There’s something wonderful about using our expertise and skill to help those in need and it really makes a difference when we return to our day-to-day practice.”
That feeling spreads through the multiple facilities throughout Richmond that make it possible for surgeries and other medical care to take place for free at their locations as part of the program. One of those locations is MEDARVA at Stony Point Surgery Center, which is the largest free-standing surgery center in virginia, the third-largest in the country, and has consistently offered its full support to Access Now.
“Stony Point Surgery Center has always had a mission to provide charitable care and has donated substantial operating room time to our practice and to others in town who are involved in Access Now,” Dr. Armstrong says. “The center has never hesitated to make itself available, contributing whatever resources they can and going out of their way to ensure that we have everything we need to provide quality surgical services to patients in need.”
In the last two years alone, Stony Point Surgery Center has provided over one million dollars in charity care each year by providing facilities, staff, supplies, and implants.
The importance of continuity of care provided by MEDARVA at Stony Point Surgery Center is valued by the staff at Access Now as well and something that is greatly understood and appreciated.
“The surgery center has been an important part of our program and played a key role in our success for many years,” Nicol added. “Any physician that uses the surgery center knows they are covered and the patient is covered. The surgeries are phenomenal and knowing that the patient isn’t going to come up against a brick wall and will receive the care they need is key to our success.”
For someone like victoria, who doesn’t speak English and was seeking medical care for sinusitis, but eventually received life-saving treatment for sinus cancer, Access Now was a life-saving solution.Referrals were made, physicians stepped up to provide specialty medical care, and facilities opened their doors, all without questioning why.
Speaking through an interpreter, Victoria explained how her experience with Access Now has been an amazing gift. She used the words miracle, God, beautiful, committed, professional, compassionate, and spiritual to convey the depth of her emotion and gratitude.
She has come to think of the doctor who saved her life as a member of her close-knit family. “Dr. Armstrong has become my eighth child,” Victoria said. “He cared and worried for me just like any of my other seven children. I will never forget how well I was treated and will always be grateful for Access Now and their doctors.”