The number of Americans without health insurance reached an all-time high of 47 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and there are no signs that number is decreasing.
But one Northern California program may actually be making a difference. Operation Access is a nonprofit program started in the Bay Area by two doctors frustrated at the lack of opportunities to help poor, sick people within their community.
The doctors wanted to find a way to offer surgeries to low-income, uninsured patients — for free. So they enlisted the help of 15 volunteering medical professions who agreed to give their time and expertise — and one hospital, which agreed to give its facilities and equipment.
In 1994, one year after the organization's birth, surgeries began and business took off from there.
Now, Operation Access has performed more than 3,000 surgeries with the help of 500 volunteers and 20 hospitals. By the new year, it will break its record for the most surgeries in one year, finishing with around 600 in 2007.
"It comes at no cost to the patient; cost is fully absorbed … and [patients] get standard post-op care," said program director Mary Gregory. "[Additionally] someone can be re-referred to come through the program multiple times."
Patients are referred by more than 60 local clinics that make sure they qualify for Operation Access care and then send them along to Gregory and her colleagues. Gregory says Operation Access is essentially the liaison between sick people in need and a medical community willing to help.
Saturday, Operation Access partnered with one of its participating hospitals to devote a day to Access patients.
"Super Saturday" at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Hospital was coordinated with the help of chief of surgery Steven Webster. The event was organized around 45 volunteers, who helped perform surgery on 10 patients in a single day.
Webster says he hopes Oakland Hospital can arrange with Access to have a Super Saturday at least annually, in addition to dealing with as many referrals as they can handle year-round.
He says the program is successful because it helps "hundreds of people back into their jobs and lifestyles because they were hindered and sometimes incapacitated from surgical injuries."
Dr. Stephen Rauh, the chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Rochester General Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., is not aware of any programs like Access in his area.
"Emergency surgeries … are frequently uninsured people who are unlikely to ever be able to pay their bill," he said. "A basic level of health care is provided to all citizens … [but] we need to catch these people falling through the cracks.
"I think something like this could work in most places," he said, "as long as you get enough surgeons to cover the need."
He is impressed with the program's approach, but points out that the risk of malpractice suits to the volunteers could be a major obstacle, because malpractice insurance is costly.
Addressing the issue, Benjamin Aune, the president and CEO of Operation Access, says that the program screens patients thoroughly and most are relatively healthy, in need of one procedure to help get them back to a healthy state, which lowers the overall risks involved — and also the cost.
"These are patients that are very grateful to be having this done," he said.