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Call Dr. 911: Lack of Health Care Vexes Richmond

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What happens if a child from a poor, inner-city neighborhood gets a bad earache?

"In some of our communities that don't have adequate care, [the parent] will call 911 for an ambulance to transport them to the hospital," says Carolyn N. Graham, Richmond's deputy chief administrative officer for human services.

"We have a tremendous population of uninsured residents in the city," Graham says, "and many of our residents rely upon VCU's emergency room as well as some of the surrounding hospitals' emergency rooms for basic primary care."

Overcoming barriers such as transportation and convenient access to physicians will be the topic of a health care symposium co-sponsored by the city and health insurer Cigna on Nov. 8 and 9 at the Omni Richmond Hotel. The symposium's keynote speaker is former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan.

Notably, the symposium will bring together the heads of the nation's four primarily black medical schools: Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, Howard University's College of Medicine in Washington, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.

Mayor Dwight Jones and Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao also will participate.

The symposium is driven in part by changes coming from the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Graham says. Starting in 2014, uninsured people who don't qualify for Medicaid will be required to purchase affordable insurance coverage. That's unless Republican lawmakers appeal the act, as they have pledged to do.

But just because impoverished residents get insurance, Graham says, it doesn't mean they'll have access to care. Many of the city's poor have limited transportation options, and the majority of the city's low-income residents don't have doctor's offices near where they live.

Symposium participants, who will include area medical and health care professionals, will discuss strategies for attracting physicians and health practitioners to the inner city. Graham says it's the beginning of a conversation about attracting physicians who specialize in primary care and pediatrics to the city.

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