Dr. William Bennetts has been volunteering to see patients for Project Access NOW since our inception in 2007. His partner at Northwest Gastroenterology Clinic, Dr. Sandy Wilborn, had been the physician we used to screen all gastroenterology consult requests from primary care clinics before scheduling. After Dr. Wilborn fully retired earlier this year, Dr. Bennetts took over this responsibility for Project Access NOW.
After he started private practice in gastroenterology in Portland in 1980, Dr. Bennetts was one of the original doctors volunteering with Wallace Medical Concern. He did active outreach in residential hotels and shelters to provide care to Portland’s indigent population.
“It was gratifying,” he says, but after the Oregon Health Plan launched, the mission for Wallace moved to the immigrant population and the clinic moved to the suburbs.
Project Access NOW staff send Dr. Bennetts 2 to 6 patient referrals per week. He reviews the medical records to determine whether the patient needs donated medical care. About half the referred patients qualify, he says. Patients then get distributed among the participating doctors randomly. These physicians are affiliated with Legacy, Providence, and Portland Adventist health systems.
But Dr. Bennetts sees as his real “customer” the referring primary-care physician.
“There are so many indigent people who need medical help out there—they just shuttle between doctors’ offices and ERs,” Dr. Bennetts says. “My job is to help primary care docs, who see these patients over and over, manage their time better.”
Whether or not they differentiate patients by insurance, doctors are already used to providing low- to no-cost care, Dr. Bennetts says. Volunteering does not pose an extraordinary burden, particularly as the care is spread among a number of volunteer providers, be they at standalone clinics, groups, or hospital systems.
“Volunteering allows me to see patients as a doctor, not as a businessman,” Dr. Bennetts says.
The focus is on people without health insurance, mainly immigrants without connections to the local community and thus unable to navigate the system well.
“They are a unique group of people,” Dr. Bennetts says. “They go under the radar and would otherwise not get the help they need.”
Whereas helping only patients who have health insurance offers a limited view of the world, Dr. Bennetts says, “This is a way to help everybody.”