Angel Wheels Partners with Clinics to Provide Wheels That Heal

By Ryan Miller, Intern, Old Dominion University

Southeastern Virginia Health System (SEVHS) in Newport News is one of eight community health centers in the greater Hampton Roads area that helps the insured, underinsured, and uninsured. They also are one of four clinics in the area that offers health treatment for the homeless, otherwise known as Health Care for the Homeless (HCH). SEVHS is part of the National Association of Community Health Centers. In the Commonwealth of Virginia alone, there are roughly 71 health clinics with a similar system of health care treatment. In this year, some 982 homeless visitors have come to SEVHS, and approximately 70 of them traveled further on Angel Wheels, a ground transportation program operated by the nonprofit charity Mercy Medical Angels.

I made a visit to the clinic to get some coverage on SEVHS and its progress, and notably in a time of a heightened health care debate in the country. Like Angel Wheels, SEVHS is considered a non-profit 501(c)(3) charity and has a staff of doctors certified in a wide scale of basic medical treatment, which also includes dental and family care. Even health insurance is offered at the clinic. Needless to say, the argument doesn’t stop SEVHS from delivering optimal service.

The community health center and its Angel Wheels partner have notable histories. SEVHS began from an initiative effort by the Whittaker Memorial Hospital in Newport News in the late 1970s. Community members gauged development of the health services project with a board of directors set to fund and run the clinic for those in need. The clinic had become independent of government funding and taxpayers alike.

Angel Wheels was founded in 2000 by a bus owner from South Dakota, Bill Connor, whose son, Jarad, had to travel a long distance to be treated for cancer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Connor would drive Jarad in a luxurious motor coach so his son could ride in comfort. Realizing that other patients could benefit from such travel, Connor founded Angel Wheels as a network of motor coach owners/drivers. The program grew, with volunteer drivers signing up from many different states. Sadly, Jarad died in 2004, and Bill died four years later. His widow, Nola, asked Mercy Medical Angels to take over the program, and for two years, the driver/bus owner model continued, with some 90 volunteers enrolled. But compared to the need on a national scale, the number of volunteers was miniscule and the means of transport impractical.

One day a homeless veteran stopped by the Mercy Medical Angels office in Virginia Beach, wondering if any resources were available for him to travel to the VA hospital in Hampton, some 30 miles away. A senior staff member bought him a bus ticket on Hampton Roads Transit, and that was when Angel Wheels turned a corner to begin reaching a large and growing population of underserved patients—the homeless, the uninsured, the working poor. These folks receive basic medical care at free and community health clinics, but when distant specialized treatment is needed, they have no means of traveling to cooperating medical centers in larger cities. That is where Angel Wheels steps in to provide Greyhound or Amtrak tickets or fuel cards, providing 1,838 completed or scheduled trips in Virginia from 2013 to mid-December.

Loretta Gaillard is a SEVHS caseworker in charge of Health Care for the Homeless. So far this year 270 people have joined HCH with Gaillard, and 25-30 patients have been referred by her to Angel Wheels. First, patients who are accepted into HCH submit an application for their health care card that must be renewed each January. A separate application for Angel Wheels is then processed for approval during a two-to-three week span of time based on the necessary treatment for the patient. Doctors at SEVHS typically refer on the basis for the need of additional treatment with a specialist at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond. Commonly, this will be an orthopedic specialist or urologist working in either a resident clinic or indigent care.

Patients who qualify undergo additional screening to determine if they have anyone available to drive them the distance. Additionally, caseworkers ask the patient to commit to Angel Wheels on a two-year program where they will see their doctor every 90 days. Medication refills are also verified through the caseworkers and provided by the in-house pharmacy at SEVHS. The 25-30 estimated patients Gaillard works with take the Greyhound bus from Newport News about 90 percent of the time. The remainder will sometimes take the Amtrak train to Charlottesville (University of Virginia Medical Center) or to Richmond. These trips are paid for and coordinated by Angel Wheels.

“You have some who are so grateful…those who swear by Angel Wheels,” Loretta Gaillard told me during my visit. I would add that it takes the heartfelt compassion of caseworkers like Ms. Gaillard to get the patients on the bus, the same driving compassion that brings together a community and ensures their well-being.

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