New York state residents, like most Americans, continue to self-quarantine and physically distance themselves from others to help “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19.

As a provider of critical and essential health care services, Family Planning of South Central New York’s medical centers are open by appointment for acute/urgent gynecological and reproductive health care — and will remain so throughout New York State On Pause, and as the battle against the deadly virus continues.

This unique, challenging set of circumstances has led Family Planning to find new, innovative ways to ensure patients continue to have safe, affordable access to the care they require during the global pandemic.

To help with social distancing efforts during the crisis, last month the local nonprofit organization launched a new telemedicine program to offer patients virtual phone or video visits for a range of medical services from the safety of their home.

There are still many appointments, however, that do require a traditional in-person visit with a provider. But transportation can often be a barrier to care, especially in these uncertain times. Thankfully, Family Planning recently expanded its ability to provide much-needed transportation assistance to many patients in need.

The patient transportation program, funded through an innovation grant awarded to the health care organization by Care Compass Network, launched April 1. It is available to current and new patients with Medicaid and to those who are Medicaid eligible. And it is already having a positive impact.

According to Katherine Nicholson, who oversees the program as part of her work as Family Planning’s Cohort Manager for Women’s Health, during the few short weeks it has been available, the organization has provided transportation assistance to and from one of its five local medical centers for several patients residing in both rural and non-rural areas.

Nicholson noted, however, that many of the more remote regions within Family Planning’s four-county service area — Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Otsego counties — are especially challenging for patients, because there are no public transportation options available to local residents.

To help, as part of the new program Family Planning signed a collaboration contract with A&D Transport Services to serve as its provider for physical transports, with Uber Health and Lyft also available as back up.

“We also can provide assistance with gas cards if needed, or bus passes where public transportation is available,” Nicholson said.

This has allowed Family Planning to ensure that individuals facing transportation barriers receive the critical care they require — at that time, Nicholson said, adding that “many of our patients’ lives can be hectic and unpredictable.”

“Often transportation issues are a last-minute choice many of our patients may have to make based on their circumstances on that particular day,” Nicholson said. “It’s good to know that now, we can be there for our patients when those moments occur.”

Dawn Margarum, a health care associate at Family Planning’s medical center in Norwich, said that transportation problems can lead to missed appointments, delays in needed care, gaps in treatment plans, and long-term issues that could have been avoided if caught earlier.

“There have been numerous times when patients call and say that they need to reschedule an appointment because their vehicle broke down or that the person that they were relying on for transportation or child care bailed on them,” Margarum said. “But now, I am able to offer many of our patients transportation assistance through this program. This will be a tremendous benefit in getting our patients into the office with a little less stress on their end — especially with the added weight of COVID-19 right now.”

For example, Margarum said, shortly after the new transportation program began, she was able to assist a 19-year-old patient who recently started on Depo-Provera injections as her method of birth control. The injections must be given during a certain time period, however, or their effectiveness as a contraceptive ends.

“The patient had rescheduled her appointment for her second shot several times already, and she called again stating she did not have transportation and so she would need to wait until the next week to come in,”Margarum said, adding that the patient lived in a rural area more than 20 miles away from the Norwich center.

If the patient delayed her appointment by another several days, however, Margarum said she would have found herself outside of the protective time period of her previous injection, leaving her without an effective form of birth control.

“But then I remembered about the new program,” she said.

So, Margarum called the patient back.

“I asked if I was to arrange transportation for her, would she still be able to come in for that day’s scheduled appointment. She said that might possibly work out. So then I asked her if I was able to provide her with a gas card, would that help. She said, ‘Yes, definitely! My friend can drive me, if I can help with the gas.’ So, because of the assistance program, she was able to keep that day’s appointment, receiving her next Depo shot before the time limit was up,” Margarum said.

Nicholson said that ultimately, the new transportation program is part of Family Planning’s ongoing commitment to ensure and expand access to care for its patients on an individual, personalized basis.

“Our patients have so many other burdens right now — with loss of jobs, decreased incomes, increased demands on time and money, etc.— because of this pandemic,” she said. “We feel very fortunate that through this program, we can help our patients maintain their access to vital medical care.”

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