The president-elect of the Jefferson County Medical Society Tuesday (May 21) shared with area residents the group’s solution to the indigent healthcare crisis created with the County Commission’s decision to reduce services at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.
Outlining a plan endorsed by the medical society, Dr. Gregory Ayers recommended indigent care funds be diverted to the Alabama Department of Public Health and earmarked only for indigent care. Then, under the direction of State Health Officer Dr. Don Williamson, the health department can establish a health plan to serve the county’s poor residents. That plan would be administered through a third party insurance provider such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama or Medicaid.
Such a plan would be the best way to remove politics out of the indigent care issue and the county’s role in providing it, he said.
“We need better access to primary care services, and that’s what’s missing now,” Ayers said. “We’ve seen a breakdown of the critical patient-physician relationship. … Our idea is centered around redirecting funds not to the legislature, but to Dr.Williamson, who is a non-political figure. He would be neutral. He could make sure those funds were steered in the correct direction. We’d want to maintain their earmark, though, so not one nickel is spent on anybody but our poor Jefferson County residents.”
The county receives about $40 million annually for indigent care.
Ayers, along with Dr. Mark Wilson, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, and Dr. Sandral Hullett, former CEO of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, addressed the issue of indigent care and the plight of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital at a forum held at the Five Points West Public Library, which drew about 60 residents, including those who’ve been vocal about county’s decision to reduce Cooper Green to an outpatient facility.
Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos has disputed contentions that the county’s changes at Cooper Green have resulted in a healthcare crisis, and argues against turning indigent care over to a health care authority, and taking it from the control of county government. But a growing chorus of voices, now including medical professionals, is in strident opposition to the county’s view and its approach.
The medical society, in a scathing statement, called the commission’s approach to Cooper Green an “abject failure.”
That decision, critics say, has left the county’s poor without critical healthcare services and has placed a burden on other area hospitals’ emergency departments as Cooper Green patients seek out those facilities for care.
Ayers said under a health care plan run by the health department, Cooper Green could act as a centralized clinic but patients would have the option to choose their primary care providers.
Wilson said although Cooper Green currently serves as a primary care facility, the transition has led to a loss of primary caregivers. That has led to a lengthy delay in patients seeing their primary caregivers. “It is critically important that we have a primary care infrastructure in place, even if we don’t do anything else,” Wilson said. “That’s our No. 1 priority.”
Wilson said he supports the creation of a health care authority to oversee health care issues but cautioned “we don’t want it to be another political body.” He envisioned the authority being comprised of health care experts, although he acknowledged an elected official would need to be present on the body.
Hullett said the community needs to be more educated about the medical process, which would help reduce misunderstanding about the current issue. She also said the community needs to be more educated about preventative care measures, which could improve the overall health care in the area and reduce untimely medical visits.
She encouraged that education through churches, schools and libraries and through forums such as the one Tuesday. “One of the things we need to do in our community is really actively get out there and teach people what they need to do for themselves,” she said.
Hullett said that despite primary caregivers feeling overwhelmed by increased traffic generated by changes at Cooper Green, local physicians aren’t turning a blind eye to the situation. “There are a lot of doctors who care, but they can’t do it all by themselves,” she said.
Ayers said the community needs to get behind a solution to the problem because their voices will get the attention of decision makers. “We’ve got one idea, but there are other good ones out there,” he said. “The community is the only way change is going to happen. It’s going to happen through grassroots efforts at the community level and through the news media getting out there and telling the story.”
Many residents attending the forum said they were encouraged by the forum and that people still care about the fate of Cooper Green. “One of the things I took from the meeting is that there are people who have not given up trying to do something better for the poor in our community,” said Gilda Walker, 60, of Fairfield. “I feel there is hope in forcing the hands of the commissioners and the state legislators and the community to demand correcting this abject failure.”