Methodist Healthcare Ministries awards funds to area nonprofits each year with the goal of increasing access to health care. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In 2019, Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM) spent over $104 million helping low-income people living in some of the most underserved counties throughout South Texas get access to health care.

When the organization was founded in 1995, the annual budget for the 74-county service area was $300,000.

The exponential increase in funding available is a result of a successful 25-year partnership between MHM, Methodist Healthcare System, and HCA Healthcare, a Nashville-based for-profit operator of health care facilities, said MHM President and CEO Jaime Wesolowski.

“We receive revenue strictly from Methodist Healthcare System and our investments with that money over the years,” Wesolowski said, noting that the hospital system’s revenue is split 50/50 between MHM and HCA after the hospital pays its bills. “In our 25 years we have spent about $1.1 billion providing direct primary care and grants to nonprofits working to meet the needs of the uninsured and underinsured.”

Dr. Ernesto Gómez, president and CEO of local nonprofit health care provider CentroMed, said that the organization would not have been able to provide physical or behavioral health services to the 96,000 patients served in 2019 without grant funding provided by MHM.

“We consider [Methodist Healthcare Ministries] our most significant partner,” Gómez said, noting CentroMed was one of the first organizations to receive grant funding from MHM. “They have helped us at CentroMed and many other clinics in the region with funding to expand services, with technical assistance, [and] funds to build facilities. They were the game-changer for community health centers in south Texas.”

Wesolowski said the relationship between the three entities is “an amazing story” of a partnership that is both lucrative and sustainable for all involved. It began when MHM formed after Methodist Hospital and HCA Healthcare agreed to share ownership in what is now Methodist Healthcare System.

“Each partner has exceptional leaders that are very skilled and passionate about their individual missions.”

Methodist Healthcare System, whose mission is to provide cost-effective and accessible health care for all, is San Antonio’s second-largest employer with a little over 11,000 employees, President and CEO Allen Harrison told the Rivard Report.

“We are also the largest health care system in San Antonio and South Texas, with more than 20 hospitals and clinics in the region, and have really grown with San Antonio to serve the needs of this rapidly growing community,” Harrison said.

The revenue the hospital system brings in has sustained programs that provide free health care, including the Wesley Nurse Program based out of more than 80 regional churches and two school-based locations in Guadalupe County, Wesolowski said. It will also help to fund future projects, including those aimed at addressing generational trauma and adverse childhood experiences, he said.

But the partnership between the health care system and MHM is more than just a financial transaction, Harrison said. While MHM has their own primary care physicians, dentists, more than 100 nurses, and a variety of other health care professionals, he said, patients in need of specialized care, including surgical procedures and treatment for life-threatening diseases, are referred to the hospital system for care.

The more than 300 physicians and specialists involved have the option of being reimbursed for the procedure by MHM at the Medicare rate.

“In most cases, the person performing the procedure is a Methodist-affiliated physician who signs up for these types of cases, and they end up not charging the patient anything,” Harrison said.

Dr. Joseph Johnson, gastroenterologist with with San Antonio Gastroenterology Associates and Endoscopy Centers, has for over a decade set aside time slots for patients referred to him by MHM, and sees around 10 patients per week referred to him by MHM. He told the Rivard Report on Friday that he came about volunteering his services for free when a fellow doctor told him about the program, and “his excitement about it was so infectious” that he decided to participate.

“It’s exciting because we have been able to provide services that have helped prevent advanced cancer for low-income and working poor people who otherwise would have a significant barrier,” Johnson said. “The need for services for these people is so great, so it’s good to be able to help these people who otherwise would have fallen through the gap” due to lack of health insurance.

In addition to medical, dental, and behavioral health services, MHM, which has nearly 500 employees, offers spiritual help by way of community prayer and referrals. Wesolowski said that, while MHM “doesn’t force that on anyone,” around 75 percent of patients receive all of the services the organization has to offer.

While MHM has helped thousands of people across Texas since its inception, Wesolowski said that the health and well-being of the communities served has not improved, with higher instances of heart disease and diabetes continuing to plague the working poor population.

As MHM celebrates the 25th anniversary of the partnership between MHM and the health care systems, Wesolowski said it plans to shift its focus toward tackling intergenerational poverty and focus on social determinants of health, including access to healthy food and clean water, and improving education rates in communities with low attainment.

“We wanted to honor the last 25 years of history by thinking as big and as boldly as our founders did when they formed this partnership,” Wesolowski said. “We spend a lot of money but it’s just a drop in the ocean when you consider the amount of need these communities face.”

MHM’s goal moving forward is to identify 2 to 4 communities throughout the 74-county service area to provide additional funding to strengthen and create new partnerships with local helping organizations that can help the area achieve health equity by increasing access and services that help people meet basic needs.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.