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Ballad Health, area health departments and safety net health care clinics across the region have partnered to create a new health care network for low-income people without health insurance.

Launched as a pilot program in September, the new Appalachian Highlands Care Network is aimed at bridging gaps in health care access, improving health outcomes and eliminating treatment disparities.

Partners include all Ballad Health hospitals, outpatient services and physician practices, local health departments, federally qualified health centers such as the Johnson City Community Health Center and Downtown Day Center operated by East Tennessee State University’s College of Nursing and other healthcare providers and services affiliated with safety net clinics across the region.

Representatives of Ballad Health, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office and other key partners announced the new network in a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon.

In a followup press release, Ballad called the partnership “a major, coordinated effort to increase healthcare access for low-income uninsured people” and “a national model for how rural health systems can transform” to reduce costs and health inequities.”

Ballad CEO Alan Levine said in the release, “For years, individual health departments, safety net clinics and healthcare providers have done what they can to care for uninsured, resource-limited people. But to truly improve the health of our communities and reach those who need our help the most, we all have to come together and work cooperatively and collaboratively.’’

“The Appalachian Highlands Care Network represents the first regionwide, coordinated effort to bring organization and technology to address the problems faced by individuals without health insurance in our community. This effort is a natural result of the scale of Ballad Health working in partnership with incredible partners such as ETSU, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Project Access and our region’s other safety-net healthcare and social service providers,” Levine said.

The new network was adapted from Appalachian Mountain Project Access, a regional nonprofit healthcare organization based in Johnson City.

Todd Norris, Ballad’s senior vice president of community health and system advancement , said, “For many years, Project Access and our regional safety-net providers have put forth a Herculean effort to provide free or reduced-cost primary care services for the uninsured in our region. After listening to safety-net providers about additional unmet needs in the community, Ballad Health is responding by making new investments that allow the Appalachian Highlands Care Network to provide expanded access to specialty diagnostics, consults and procedures, as well as enhanced care coordination and management for individuals with chronic conditions.”

Brooks Blair, Project Access executive director, said, “Ultimately, this will be a new model of care delivery for the Appalachian Highlands that shows what is possible when we all work together to solve a communitywide problem. We are very pleased with the level of support Ballad Health is providing and the essential partnerships we have with so many other regional providers. Our goal is to grow the network to completely fill the care gaps that exist.

According to the press release, the network has operated as a pilot program since Sept. 1 and will continue to increase the number of individuals it serves. Uninsured patients who need specialty or diagnostic care are referred to the program from providers, hospitals, health departments, community clinics and faith-based centers. The network enrolls members based on a financial assessment and schedules necessary medical appointments, procedures and testing.

As the network grows, its development will follow three distinct phases — care coordination, care management and finally, preventative care for healthier, uninsured populations. Through each phase, Project Access will work in partnership with regional health departments and established safety net partners, including Crossroads Medical Mission, The Health Wagon, Healing Hands, Friends in Need and Providence Clinic.

Linda McClure, regional primary care director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office, said, “This is a tremendous leap forward for our region, as we’ll be able to more readily provide patients with the level of services that are clinically warranted without delay and without financial barrier concerns. It literally could mean the difference between a patient pursuing and following through with their recommended plan of care or not, and it will make all the difference in their overall health status and quality of life.

Project Access has long been a champion of us when our backs are against the wall, especially when a patient’s needs exceed what we’re able to provide. They go above and beyond to link that patient to the next level of care. The development of the Appalachian Highlands Care Network is very, very exciting, as there are a lot of other, less urgent medical needs that still warrant evaluation and further care, and this will open the door for these needs to be served,” McClure said.

Patients who qualify for the Appalachian Highlands Care Network include those who do not have access to health insurance and whose income is at or below 225% of the federal poverty level. To see if you qualify for network services or for more information, visit www.projectaccesseasttn.org.