Handling the Logistics

Practical Assistance Center offers patients practical resources

Handling the Logistics:  Judy McKay
Judy Mackey worked with the Practical Assistance Center to connect with a program that would help her to afford Gleevec-a drug that costs $5,100 per month.

Judy Mackey was already reeling from the news that she would have to take Gleevec every day for the rest of her life to keep gastrointestinal cancer at bay. But the news only got worse.

The pharmacist told her she had fallen into the notorious Medicare Part D doughnut hole, effectively leaving her without any prescription insurance. When Mackey learned that Gleevec costs $5,100 per month, she was devastated.

The pharmacist recommended she go to the Practical Assistance Center, a new office on Level 1 of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, to find out whether she was eligible for financial assistance with her prescriptions. It was nearly 5 p.m. on a Friday, so Mackey didn't think she'd get help that day. But she was surprised to find that social work assistant Maureen Marhofer, L.L.B.S.W., was not only willing to stay late to work through all of her questions, but was able to fax an application for financial assistance to Gleevec's manufacturer, Novartis.

"I came away feeling that U-M really cares."
-Judy Mackey

By Tuesday, Mackey had learned she was eligible for a free supply of Gleevec.

"When you're facing this kind of diagnosis, you begin to feel like there's no answer to any of these problems. They become so overwhelming that you can't see through them to even think. Maureen did the thinking for me," Mackey said. "I came away with the feeling that U-M really cares."

"We want to relieve any stress that we can to help patients and families focus on getting well."
-Maureen Marhofer,
U-M social work assist

In partnership with the U-M Health System's Guest Assistance Program and Cancer Center Business Services, the Practical Assistance Center can help patients navigate the often complex logistics involved in cancer care, said Dana Selwitz-Zacks, L.M.S.W., program manager for practical assistance and guest amenities.

The Practical Assistance Center brings together several services in a single, convenient location within the Cancer Center. U-M social work resources, such as financial assistance for meals, lodging, transportation and parking, are available. The center handles questions about billing and works closely with the patient financial counselors.

Handling the Logistics:  Practical Assistance Center Staff
Maureen Marhofer, Dana Selwitz-Zacks and Sarita Castro (from left) work with patients in the Practical Assistance Center.

In addition, Sarita Castro, a social services technician for the center, is dedicated to helping patients find community resources that may be useful. Castro also helps patients cut through red tape by helping to complete aid applications and acting as a liaison to clinics to help expedite the process.

"We found that, especially in the changing economy, more and more patients need assistance, and clinicians are devoting a lot of time to this," Selwitz-Zacks said. "We figured that centralizing these services -- as well as offering services that go above and beyond -- would be helpful."

Patients often are referred to the Practical Assistance Center by their health-care teams, but walk-ins are encouraged. Typically, patients meet with Marhofer, who conducts a brief assessment by asking questions. Marhofer can help determine what resources may be available based on a patient's financial situation.

Often, patients don't know about programs for which they are already eligible. For example, Marhofer said, many patients are not aware that discounted drugs may be available or that Medicaid provides a transportation benefit.

"We want to relieve any stress that we can to help patients and families focus on getting well," Marhofer said. "We try to eliminate any barriers to care."

If a patient is not eligible for U-M programs, Practical Assistance Center staff can search a list of external resources that may be helpful. Many of these resources are specific to certain types of cancer. Other assistance may be more general, but no less important: For example, during the height of summer, Castro helped a patient find an air conditioner through the Salvation Army.

By providing a one-stop resource for practical assistance, the Cancer Center is freeing up more time for clinic social workers to address patients' emotional needs.

"These practical things really can be time-consuming," Castro said. "That's why we're here to help."

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Thrive Issue: 
Fall, 2011