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story by T.R. Witcher

Spread the health around

A new program brings affordable health care to the uninsured of Las Vegas — and it’s creating a stir across the nation In 2007, Reno security guard Ron Watson lost his job — and his health insurance. At his doctor’s recommendation, he applied for membership with Access to Healthcare Network, a then brand-new discount health care provider for the uninsured poor. Two years later, he was fighting prostate cancer, which meant 10 biopsies, a battery of tests and 45 sessions of radiation, five a week. But his connection with Access, which operated only in the Reno area, proved invaluable. During his radiation treatment, he met with his doctor weekly. The regular fee for office visits was $751; he paid only $70. (These savings multiplied over the nine weeks of treatment.) An arm implant to lower his testosterone levels ordinarily cost $5,000; he paid $250. The network also helped connect Watson with other sources of financial aid, courtesy of the American Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Watson even had his own care coordinator who scheduled his appointments. The treatments saved his life; the innovative health care network saved him thousands of dollars. 18

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It all started in … Reno? The need has never been greater. More than 600,000 Nevadans don’t have health insurance, according to the Great Basin Primary Care Association, a statewide group of primary care clinics. Two-thirds of those uninsured are in Southern Nevada. Nationally, 58 million lack adequate health care. And to think the epicenter of an experiment that might solve this problem is … Reno? Sherri Rice, the charismatic director of the non-profit network, is quick to remind us that we’re in Nevada, a state where, like the Titanic, we’re “arranging the deck chairs every day in this state.” In other words: Sometimes the best medicine comes from the sickest places. Access traces its roots to a handful of stakeholders in Reno — Renown and St. Mary’s hospitals, Washoe County officials, a smattering of health care and business professionals — who were trying to provide primary health care to the uninsured poor. Rice, who’s lived in Washoe County for 33 years, has a background in consulting nonprofits. She calls herself a “systems expert. I come in and really overhaul the systems.” When she was brought in to run the network, her mandate was

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Now his cancer is in remission and he’s feeling fine. “They came through with flying colors,” he says of Access to Healthcare Network. On the other hand, most Americans came through this year’s debate over health care reform with a giant question mark. What got reformed exactly? Who were the winners and losers? Health care may have galvanized Tea Partiers, but it’s unclear whether they have any more idea about the state of our system than anyone else. By contrast, Access to Healthcare Network represents an almost embarrassingly straightforward idea: Connecting Americans with no insurance and limited means to pay for care with a comprehensive network of health care providers willing to provide medical services at a steep discount. Since its 2006 debut in Washoe County, the network has engaged more than 700 health care providers to serve more than 7,000 county residents. Now Access is headed south. In December, the network begins accepting clients in Southern Nevada.

Desert Companion - November/December 2010