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Nov 23, 2020

Dr. Pennell and Dr. James Hammock discuss the provision of oncologic services by Project Access safety net care coordination programs.


NATHAN PENNELL: Hello, and welcome to the latest JCO Oncology Practice podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all recordings, including this one, at

My name is Dr. Nate Pennell, medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic and consulting editor for the JCO OP. I have no conflicts of interest related to this podcast. And a complete list of disclosures is available at the end of the podcast.

Today, I'd like to talk a little bit about the complexities of providing cancer care for patients who are uninsured or underinsured, which is a relatively large percentage of patients in the US.

How do patients without insurance receive cancer care? One way is through community programs, including a program called Project Access, a care coordination program connecting patients to specialty medical care at no or reduced cost, including, in some instances, oncology care.

But how does it work? Who does it help? And how impactful are this and other programs designed to obtain cancer care for low-income, uninsured, and underserved patients? With me today to discuss this topic is Dr. Jamey Hammock, a resident in internal medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

We'll be discussing the paper from he and his colleagues titled, Oncologic Services Through Project Access and Other Safety Net Care Coordination Programs, which was published online July 31, 2020 in the JCO OP. Welcome, Jamey, and thank you for joining me on the podcast.

JAMEY HAMMOCK: Hey. Thank you, very excited to be here. I did want to say too that I do not have any conflicts of interest or disclosures for this particular study.

NATHAN PENNELL: Why don't we start out by talking a little bit about how big a problem it is for providing cancer care in uninsured and underinsured patients in the US.

JAMEY HAMMOCK: It's an enormous problem. If you look at previous studies, they've looked at patients who are underserved, underinsured, or even uninsured with cancer. And these patients actually typically present with later stage disease, they experience delays in treatment, and ultimately have worse overall survival compared to well-insured patients.

So just that alone tells you how big of a problem that this is. I think that when you look at cancer care for underinsured and uninsured, you have to break those things up. And you can't really talk about it without talking about the Affordable Care Act.

So let's take uninsured patients, for example. If you look at pre-Affordable Care Act and post-Affordable Care Act, there's a great study in 2017 that really broke down these two groups, pre and post. And what they found is with the Affordable Care Act, if you are uninsured across any income level and you lived in a Medicaid expansion state, the percentage of patients who were uninsured decreased from about 5% to 2 and 1/2%. So it really cut that percentage in half, which is pretty impressive.

And then if you look at low-income uninsured patients, because they broke that down in the study, the percentage actually dropped from around 10% to 3 and 1/2%. So It just shows you when you talk about absolute numbers and then those percentages, how many individuals are really affected that have a diagnosis of cancer and are uninsured. And it gives you a little bit of insight of what Medicaid expansion has done for that group.

And then I want to touch really quickly too on underinsured. So basically underinsured patients, they don't have the means to get the care that they need, even if they have insurance. That's important.

And patients with Medicaid, for example, they have insurance, but they have their own challenges. For example, there's been studies showing that they have longer wait times to see some specialists. It's harder to find a physician that takes patients with Medicaid.

Lastly, these providers are so few and far between that sometimes these patients are asked to drive very long distances to get the care they need. And you're already talking about a disadvantaged patient population who may not have the means to drive an hour away to get to their visit.

NATHAN PENNELL: That sounds very challenging situation, even for people who technically have health insurance, and still don't necessarily have what they need to access care the way it should be given.

Can you tell us a little bit about Project Access? I have to admit, I had never heard of that before I read this paper. And it was a fascinating program that something like this exists. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

JAMEY HAMMOCK: Absolutely. So Project Access, first off, they do great work. It's a nonprofit organization that really, really works hard to try to get patients who are underinsured and uninsured subspecialty care.

So I want to talk real briefly about the history first because I think it helps you understand why Project Access came to be. I think we need primary care pretty well in the US for patients who are underinsured and uninsured. We have things called community health centers, which are federal qualified health centers funded by the government.

And they really do a good job providing primary care for patients who cannot get it elsewhere. The problem is that a lot of these patients ultimately will end up meaning a subspecialist. And there does not exist a community health center for subspecialty care that's funded by the government the way that community health centers are.

One thing to address this was Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion was supposed to increase the amount of patients who got insurance and thus wouldn't be able to obtain the subspecialty care that they need.

But we've already talked about some of the shortcomings of Medicaid expansion, including not all states have done that, decided to expand unfortunately. And if you're an undocumented immigrant, unfortunately, you don't have access many times to government programs.

So it doesn't do anything for those populations. There's been some other strategies, Dr. Pennell, to try to address subspecialty care in these populations, things like telehealth, and which you would need the technology, things like subspecialists actually coming to community health centers, let's say, every other Friday to see a patient who needs a cardiologist or an oncologist.

But the problem with that is it's a little sporadic, it's inconsistent. And sometimes these patients can't be that flexible and come in the only day that the specialist is going to be there. And so really, here enters Project Access to say, you know what, let us negotiate-- pre-negotiate with subspecialists in the community that surround these community health centers and find subspecialists that agree to see x amount of patients a year.

And when it comes time to refer a patient to a specialist, you contact us, and the work has been done. And so they sort of broker, if you will, or negotiate between some specialists in primary care. And they do a lot of the groundwork that it takes to get these patients the subspecialty care they need to get the results of the subspecialty visit back to the primary care. They do all of that legwork. And so they really are an incredible, incredible service.

I do want to mention, they're more of a local solution. So Project Access Birmingham, for example, it serves the residents of Jefferson County. It's not meant to be a statewide solution. They're very good at serving the patients who are near, who are in the county.

And in fact, a lot of them have requirements that you be a resident of the county that they operate in. But they do a wonderful job getting these patients the subspecialty care that they need.

NATHAN PENNELL: Well, I have more questions about Project Access. But I think you're going to answer some of them when we start to talk about your paper. So why don't you just start off by talking us a little bit about, what was the purpose of the project that you did and how did you design your quality project.

JAMEY HAMMOCK: This project started out as a genuine question I had working as an intern in internal medicine. I would see patients come into our hospital who were uninsured who had a malignancy or cancer. And I would just ask, where do these patients get their care. How are they suppose to get outpatient clinic follow-up?

So that's when I learned about Project Access locally here in Birmingham. And as you just mentioned, I had a ton of questions. So I actually went and met with Project Access and just asked them all of these questions.

How do you work? How is your funding? Who do you see? What specialties do you provide, et cetera, et cetera.

And I decided I wanted to really take an in-depth study and look at our Project Access here in Birmingham. When I began doing the literature review for that, I realized that there was not much out there in terms of this Project Access model. I was told that many other ones exist across the country, but there had not been a lot done in the medical literature describing these places and the wonderful work that they do. And so at that point, I began to zoom out a little bit and look at all of the Project Access centers that exist in the country.

NATHAN PENNELL: What did you find out when you started calling and checking in with all of the different Project Access programs?

JAMEY HAMMOCK: To kind of bring things back to home, I really was particularly interested in how these Project Access centers offer oncology care because oncology care is a little bit different than other subspecialties in terms of the resources needed to provide such care. And my interest was, how do programs who are nonprofit who are trying to work with underinsured/uninsured patients provide care that require so much resources. So that was really one of my objectives is to tailor my approach to oncology care, specifically, while also describing the programs in general.

And so what I found was that out of about 30 programs that I found, roughly 2/3 offered care medical oncologists. And then out of those 2/3, about 1/2 of those programs actually offered chemotherapy.

Fortunately, everyone offered radiographic studies, such as MRI, CT, PET scan. So they could at least assist in diagnosing or helping to diagnose suspicion for a malignancy. Obviously, that doesn't include a biopsy, but could at least sort get the ball rolling, if you will.

And then the other thing I discovered is, as I mentioned previously in the podcast, there was a lot of heterogeneity between the programs. So some programs offer transportation, some programs offered interpreter services, while others did not. Some programs required small co-pays. It seemed that everything was really tailored to their respective local community and what worked best for that community.

In terms of Medicaid expansion, which was sort of another thing we were looking at with this study, what we found is about 2/3 of the states that have not expanded Medicaid have a Project Access center. And if you compare that to states that have expanded, only about one third of those have Project Access centers.

And so our study suggests that the need for pro bono care is a little higher in Medicaid non-expansion states. And I think that that's intuitive. The percentage of uninsured patients with cancer in a non-expansion state is as high as 13%, depending on what their income is. And that's compared to about 2% to 3% in a state that's expanded Medicaid. So those are drastically different numbers and drastically different needs for patients, depending on if they reside in a state that has expanded Medicaid.

NATHAN PENNELL: But it seems as though the difference between areas that had programs that offered cancer care and those that didn't probably revolve around whether they're able to find practitioners who are willing to provide those services. And it looks like you did some investigating of programs that did and did not offer cancer care. So what were the differences between those?

JAMEY HAMMOCK: The next step of my project was to interview those program coordinators of the centers who were not able to offer medical oncology care. And three common themes emerged as I talked to these program directors.

The first of those themes was cost. And I think that that's intuitive. And it did not surprise me. Medical care is expensive. Oncology care is expensive. And these programs, they're mostly nonprofit and rely on donations and such.

And so the first barrier to offering this is cost. The patient see the medical oncologist, and they prescribe chemotherapy, someone has to pay for that chemotherapy.

And a lot of Project Access centers were not prepared to do that. One in particular I spoke with, they had actually considered it. And when they ran the numbers, it would account for over half of their annual budget. So it just was not feasible.

The second barrier that emerged while I was talking to these program directors was the concept of continuity and a longitudinal commitment. So for example, if I'm a medical oncologist and I decide that I want to take part in this and donate some of my services, and I see a patient that has a new diagnosis of cancer, and we treat the cancer, what happens if they relapse or what happens in five years that they need a medical oncologist again?

And I don't think many oncologists were comfortable committing to a situation that had no clear end date. That's in contrast to a patient that has COPD and the primary care physician is referring them to a pulmonologist to get recommendations on maintenance inhalers and what might work best for this patient. That's more of a one and done visit.

The third area barrier emerged as I talked to these patients was the concept of multiple physician buy-in. And so, as you're aware, many patients that have a cancer may require care from multiple subspecialties, whether that be surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiology, diagnostic radiology, and even palliative care. And so it really is a disservice to a patient if you can offer them not the full scope of oncological care that they need. A lot of Project Access centers were not comfortable providing some of the care without providing all of the care, if that makes sense.

NATHAN PENNELL: I mean, all of those make perfect sense. I mean, although in some ways they relate partly back to the first issue, which is that things cost more if they take a long time and have to continue indefinitely over time.

So I'm curious, for the places that did offer chemotherapy, and actually even though it was a relatively small percentage, it was not trivial, chemotherapy is extremely expensive. As you mentioned, some of them looked at it and decided it was going to be something like half of their revenue for the year would be taken and providing this. How did those that covered chemo actually cover the cost of that?

JAMEY HAMMOCK: That's a great question. I had the same question. And so what we found is that most of the programs who were able to offer medical oncology and then services, and then taking the next step to offer chemotherapy, they were affiliated with very large hospital systems in the area.

So I'll give you an example. Here in Birmingham, our Project Access center works with UAB. And they're able to offer these services because UAB takes the baton, if you will, and carries the care forward, offers that chemotherapy that is needed. So it's done through large affiliated hospital systems. If that does not exist, or if that relationship is not there, then what my study has shown is that it's not feasible.

NATHAN PENNELL: Right. That makes sense. I mean, individual oncology offices that order their own chemotherapy could probably never afford to just donate that, whereas large systems have other ways to do that. And of course, the large nonprofits also have to give back to the community and may just consider that part of their community service.

What's the next step to extend this? I guess, the larger question is, it'd be great if perhaps everyone had health insurance. But until that happens, what steps can be taken to provide something like this more broadly?

JAMEY HAMMOCK: Yeah, so that is exactly what I was thinking. Medicare for all is the answer. And ultimately I think we need a centralized universal health insurance policy. But that's not the topic of this podcast.

So until then, Project Access is stepping into the gap and doing this great work. And I really wanted them to be recognized just as a organization, broadly speaking, and then on an individual basis. They are on the ground doing the hard work, making the phone calls, making the partnerships, raising the money. They're really doing incredible, incredible work for people out there who have no other options.

It's not enough. As I mentioned earlier, these are local solutions to statewide issues. If you look at Alabama, it's a non-expansion state, unfortunately. The patients in Jefferson County here where Birmingham is, they benefit from Public Access, but the patients in Shelby County might not. So it's a statewide issue for the states that don't have Medicaid expansion, and then even a small population in the states that do.

One thing that we can do is we can look at the examples that have been set by Project Access centers who have partnered with these hospitals and collaborate and say, listen, we're a Project Access center that has not had any luck. Please share with us how you were successful in providing oncology care to your patients.

My hope is that this project provides a list where collaboration can begin. And these places can learn from each other.

NATHAN PENNELL: Well, I think that this is fantastic. And I'm really happy that we're going to be able to highlight Project Access and your manuscript so more people are aware of this and hopefully can start shining lights on their own local Project Access programs.

JAMEY HAMMOCK: Right, right.

NATHAN PENNELL: Well, Jamey, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

JAMEY HAMMOCK: Thank you for having me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and love talking about Project Access and access to care. And I really appreciate it.

NATHAN PENNELL: Until next time, I also want to thank our listeners for checking in on this JCO Oncology Practice podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

While you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never missed an episode. JCO OP podcasts are just one of ASCO's many podcasts programs. You can find all recordings at

The full text of this paper is available online at This is Dr. Nate Pennell for the JCO Oncology Practice signing off.

PRESENTER: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care. And is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions.

The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. For more original research, editorials, and review articles, please visit us online at

This production is copyrighted to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Thank you for listening.