By Don Wade, Memphis Daily News

Dr. Rick Donlon once explained the motivation for co-founding Christ Community Health Services in 1995 this way:

“It may sound odd, but it’s a way to make God big and great,” Donlon told The Daily News in 2010. “We plop down in one of these underserved neighborhoods, we open the door, and we see everyone who comes in.”

Now, Donlon and CCHS co-founder Dr. David Pepperman have launched Resurrection Health.

“The first time we did this we were 30 and had a lot more energy,” Donlon, 51, said. “But the reason we recruited people here was they were wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves – those noble things they thought about when they entered medicine.”

Those “underserved neighborhoods” Donlon referenced are now known as primary care deserts. Before Donlon and Pepperman left CCHS last year because of philosophical differences over the direction of the organization, Donlon was more and more focused on geographical disparities in Greater Memphis.

As Donlon had started to say then and says now, there are essentially two primary care worlds in Shelby County. In one the population is predominately white and more affluent and doctors are competing with doctors for patients. In the other the population is primarily African-American and low-income rates are much higher, and patients are competing with patients for doctors.

Resurrection Health, a non-profit, identifies itself as a “faith-based, evangelical health service organization intended to holistically meet the primary care needs of those in the community who do not have access to quality health care.”

More than 200,000 low-income residents of western and southeastern Shelby County, Donlon says, struggle to find primary care in their communities. More specifically, Resurrection Health leaders identified southeast Memphis as a target area with the most need, launching two temporary health centers in December.

The organization’s first permanent health center recently opened at 4095 American Way. The 7,100-square-foot health center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and offers a 10-person clinical staff providing broad-spectrum primary care, including focus areas in prenatal care, pediatrics, women’s health, HIV/AIDS care, and adult and geriatric medicine, along with general surgery offerings.

Donlon and other Resurrection Health physicians also are staffing the emergency room at Delta Medical Center 24/7, a contract that went into effect on Dec. 10, 2014. The ER, he says, is often where patients without a primary a doctor first seek medical attention.

In addition, a temporary health center at 3960 Knight Arnold has been transformed into a permanent location for general surgery offerings.

Donlon is serving as CEO of Resurrection Health, Pepperman as chief medical officer, and Rob Werner as chief financial officer. Currently, Resurrection Health has 42 full-time employees, about half of whom are physicians, physician assistants or nurse practitioners. Most used to work at CCHS. Another 20-plus residents in training will be coming on board later this year.

As the organization grows, the plan is to add dentistry, optometry and pharmacy services. Resurrection Health relies primarily on reimbursement payments from Medicare, Medicaid and private payers. Thus, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, which would have used more than $1 billion annually in Affordable Care Act funding to offer an expanded Medicaid alternative to uninsured working people, “would have been hugely beneficial to Resurrection Health,” Donlon said.

Donlon is yet hopeful some form of that plan eventually will receive legislative approval in Tennessee, but until then he says they will “limp along,” noting they do not presently have any grants or much in the way of philanthropic backing. Although Grace Evangelical Church did provide a $50,000 gift to help Resurrection Health get its start.

To anyone wondering why Donlon would take on such a big job late in his career, he has this answer:

“First, to go do something else would be to bow out in a way that I shouldn’t do. Second, people who pour out their lives for the Kingdom of God get rewarded. So I’m ambitious (for something beyond a monetary reward).

“From my point of view it would be kind of stupid” to turn away from this challenge, Donlon said, adding, “So that’s why we’re trying to climb the mountain a second time.”

Noting that CCHS and the Church Health Center are their own models, as are other organizations providing similar services, Donlon says the one thing he is sure of is that there are enough people in need of doctors to go around.

“There’s room for everybody to grow and even for other people to come into the market,” he said.

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