Politics & Government

Sedgwick County reduces funding to Project Access for uninsured residents

Project Access, which helps uninsured people with medical care, will receive $34,000 less this year from Sedgwick County than it had anticipated after commissioners questioned using taxpayer dollars for the program.

Commissioner Jim Howell, who recently took office, said he felt bad for people who need help with healthcare but said he also didn’t see charity as part of government’s role.

“I love what Project Access does,” Howell said. “I think it’s a good program and appreciate the generous hearts of those … who provide care. … Generally speaking, I don’t think the government should have a role in being charitable.”

He noted that the county’s dollars for Project Access come from property taxes. Howell said some residents struggle to pay the taxes on their homes and if they can’t pay them, they can lose their homes.

“When we take someone’s tax dollars, we have a responsibility to use them for essential government,” he said.

Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn voted with Howell to reduce the county’s funding from $208,940 to $175,000 – the same amount the city of Wichita gives – and board members Tim Norton and Dave Unruh voted against the cut. The city’s dollars to Project Access come from a federal program, not property taxes.

Anne Nelson, executive director of the Central Plains Health Care Partnership, which administers Project Access, said she was thankful for the county’s support but disappointed by Wednesday’s action. Central Plains is an affiliate of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County.

The county passed its 2015 budget last year, and Project Access had counted on the full amount. On Wednesday, Nelson said, commissioners were to simply sign the agreement with Central Plains. Commissioners did so but at the reduced amount.

The cut likely will impact the prescription program that Project Access offers. Last year Project Access provided $9.5 million in medicine.

Project Access needs about $800,000 a year to operate fully, Nelson said. In 2014, it leveraged $17.5 million in donated health care from doctors, other healthcare professionals, hospitals and dentists to help 1,481 people.

Since Project Access started in 1999, it has helped 12,340 people with $170 million of donated medical care. Nelson said 630 physicians, or about 65 percent of physicians in the community, participate in Project Access. Twelve dentists and eight hospital systems, including Via Christi Health and Wesley Medical Center, also participate.

“It’s a community effort to serve the uninsured,” she said.

About 65,000 uninsured adults live in Sedgwick County.

Project Access, Norton said, “tells how much we care about the underserved, the vulnerable, those who have health problems. We talk about Kansas being a caring state, and this is one way that manifests itself.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.