Southeastern Virginia Health System (SEVHS) in Newport News is one of eight community health centers in the greater Hampton Roads area that helps the insured, underinsured, and uninsured. They also are one of four clinics in the area that offers health treatment for the homeless, otherwise known as Health Care for the Homeless (HCH). SEVHS is part of the National Association of Community Health Centers. In the Commonwealth of Virginia alone, there are roughly 71 health clinics with a similar system of health care treatment. In this year, some 982 homeless visitors have come to SEVHS, and approximately 70 of them traveled further on Angel Wheels, a ground transportation program operated by the nonprofit charity Mercy Medical Angels.
I made a visit to the clinic to get some coverage on SEVHS and its progress, and notably in a time of a heightened health care debate in the country. Like Angel Wheels, SEVHS is considered a non-profit 501(c)(3) charity and has a staff of doctors certified in a wide scale of basic medical treatment, which also includes dental and family care. Even health insurance is offered at the clinic. Needless to say, the argument doesn’t stop SEVHS from delivering optimal service.
The community health center and its Angel Wheels partner have notable histories. SEVHS began from an initiative effort by the Whittaker Memorial Hospital in Newport News in the late 1970s. Community members gauged development of the health services project with a board of directors set to fund and run the clinic for those in need. The clinic had become independent of government funding and taxpayers alike.
Angel Wheels was founded in 2000 by a bus owner from South Dakota, Bill Connor, whose son, Jarad, had to travel a long distance to be treated for cancer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Connor would drive Jarad in a luxurious motor coach so his son could ride in comfort. Realizing that other patients could benefit from such travel, Connor founded Angel Wheels as a network of motor coach owners/drivers. The program grew, with volunteer drivers signing up from many different states. Sadly, Jarad died in 2004, and Bill died four years later. His widow, Nola, asked Mercy Medical Angels to take over the program, and for two years, the driver/bus owner model continued, with some 90 volunteers enrolled. But compared to the need on a national scale, the number of volunteers was miniscule and the means of transport impractical.
One day a homeless veteran stopped by the Mercy Medical Angels office in Virginia Beach, wondering if any resources were available for him to travel to the VA hospital in Hampton, some 30 miles away. A senior staff member bought him a bus ticket on Hampton Roads Transit, and that was when Angel Wheels turned a corner to begin reaching a large and growing population of underserved patients—the homeless, the uninsured, the working poor. These folks receive basic medical care at free and community health clinics, but when distant specialized treatment is needed, they have no means of traveling to cooperating medical centers in larger cities. That is where Angel Wheels steps in to provide Greyhound or Amtrak tickets or fuel cards, providing 1,838 completed or scheduled trips in Virginia from 2013 to mid-December.
Loretta Gaillard is a SEVHS caseworker in charge of Health Care for the Homeless. So far this year 270 people have joined HCH with Gaillard, and 25-30 patients have been referred by her to Angel Wheels. First, patients who are accepted into HCH submit an application for their health care card that must be renewed each January. A separate application for Angel Wheels is then processed for approval during a two-to-three week span of time based on the necessary treatment for the patient. Doctors at SEVHS typically refer on the basis for the need of additional treatment with a specialist at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond. Commonly, this will be an orthopedic specialist or urologist working in either a resident clinic or low-income care. Patients who qualify undergo additional screening to determine if they have anyone available to drive them the distance.
Additionally, caseworkers ask the patient to commit to Angel Wheels on a two-year program where they will see their doctor every 90 days. Medication refills are also verified through the caseworkers and provided by the in-house pharmacy at SEVHS. The 25-30 estimated patients Gaillard works with take the Greyhound bus from Newport News about 90 percent of the time. The remainder will sometimes take the Amtrak train to Charlottesville (University of Virginia Medical Center) or to Richmond. These trips are paid for and coordinated by Angel Wheels.
“You have some who are so grateful…those who swear by Angel Wheels,” Loretta Gaillard told me during my visit. I would add that it takes the heartfelt compassion of caseworkers like Ms. Gaillard to get the patients on the bus, the same driving compassion that brings together a community and ensures their well-being.
2013, Mercy Medical Angels celebrated its 100,000th patient mission with a reception and program at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia. In his keynote speech, CEO and President Ed Boyer explained the significance of that figure and the importance of MMA to the national need for patient access on into the future.)
Good evening, and thank you for coming. I sincerely trust you will enjoy this evening, that you will take the opportunity to meet new friends, and that you will learn things you haven’t known before.
I would hope you will be thinking through the evening about how important this program is for the needy among us throughout the United States – for without MM programs, many cannot afford the long distance travel often necessary to access a medical specialist for evaluation, diagnosis or treatment.
Their need may sound simple – like going from Fairfax to Richmond or Charlottesville – for that is where free clinic patients must go for specialist appointments in Virginia. No way to get there, then no specialist medical care. We support this type of trip for needy patients in Virginia now – about 175 times a month.
Another need….We flew a Maryland family with a very young child to a life saving “one of a kind” infant heart operation done only at Stanford University Hospital in California. The operation saved the child’s life.
You will meet the child’s mother and her thriving daughter later this evening.
The origins of Mercy Medical go back nearly 50 years when I spent the last 3½ years of the 1960’s as a civilian professional engineer with the U.S Air Force traveling from base to base in South Vietnam solving technical problems, and making sure I always ducked at the right time. I hitchhiked to travel around Vietnam in the back ends of Air Force C-130 and C-123K cargo planes – often sitting between rows of stretchers of wounded men headed to a distant military hospital. There were never enough medical attendants, and the nurses just simply expected me to help – not to sleep. That was my introduction to long-distance medical evacuation – and the exposure took.
In early 1970 I was transferred back to Washington, DC into the slightly more settled job as Chief Engineer of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I again became an active pilot in general aviation in the northern Virginia area and by mid-1972, the long-distance charitable medical air transportation program – later to be known as Mercy Medical Angels – was born. That was more than 103,000 patients ago, and we are here to give thanks to the Lord and celebrate the job so very well done in total safety by a whole cadre of volunteers, office staff, individual supporters, airline sponsors, corporate donors, churches, civic clubs and philanthropic foundation donors.
I thank all of you. We are really celebrating YOU!
As you know, pilots use check lists and flight manuals – but in 1972 when the program first started, I couldn’t find anything written on how to undertake such a task on a nation-wide philanthropic basis. It simply would never work if we tried to charge for our services. The need was there because people could not pay. Some of the needs are mid-night calls for a patient transport to a Pittsburgh transplant center at 2 a.m. in the morning when an organ suddenly becomes available. Most needs, however, are known days in advance and are planned under more calm routine circumstances.
Distances and circumstances vary – so accordingly we select and ensure the provision of the most appropriate form of long-distance charitable transportation. It can be on a commercial airline, in a privately-owned general aviation aircraft flown by a highly qualified volunteer pilot – or it could be a ground mode transport by Greyhound Bus, by AMTRAK, or via a volunteer motor coach driver or in a patient neighbor’s car for which we have provided a gas card. We are very flexible – something government programs simply can’t do.
When I look into the future today, I am seeing the need for long-distance travel for medical purposes growing everywhere around this nation. No matter how hard Washington tries to meet the need, it simply isn’t significantly happening.
Now, if you believe what I am saying, chances are, involvement in this societal issue will be in your personal future as well.
How then shall we proceed to help needy patients, doing it efficiently, doing it with the Good Samaritan’s grace, and thereby honoring our Lord God?
Let me first ask you a few questions:
- Are health care costs going down?
- Is the number of doctors in the marketplace increasing?
- Is the cost of travel going down?
- What about the cost of gasoline?
- Are doctors still coming to see you in your home?
- Does the free clinic, medical facility or specialty hospital come to you?
OK – Then:
- We must complete the health care access mosaic in America. One mode or design simply doesn’t fit all.
- We must make it work efficiently, and we must ensure patient access or there is no point to any of the great medical advances.
The medical academics say it is all about patient access. We agree with them—and we have studied it, worked it, and after 40 years of experience, we believe we have learned how to do it in various efficient and effective ways.
We are Mercy Medical – and we are all about patient access now and into the future.
I invite each of you to find a special way you can become a part of completing this medical access mosaic in the United States of America It may save the life of a family member or someone else dear to you.
Mark your calendar for a celebration of the one millionth patient transport. It will happen sooner than you think!
I again than you for coming.