South Carolina's hospitals launching new plan for uninsured patients

CONWAY, SC (WMBF) –  There are new state-wide efforts to handle healthcare in South Carolina. Every year, the state spends several hundred million tax dollars to treat uninsured patients, but now there's a plan in the works to cut the costs.

Local hospital administrators tell WMBF News there are a high number of uninsured people in the area, and when one visits the emergency room, it can cost anywhere from $600 to $6,000. If the patient is uninsured, everyone ends up paying for it.

With the state's new "Healthy Outcomes" program, each hospital is working on contacting a number of uninsured patients who frequently visit. They are sending letters, making phone calls, and even knocking on doors if necessary. Hospital care coordinators will then take the time to help them with their health, by working with them to get them more affordable and preventative health care solutions. For example, by taking a person to primary care doctors so they won't need to end up at the hospital, which is one of the most expensive ways to handle health issues.

Taxpayers are the ones paying for those uninsured hospital visits, through general taxes or through their own higher bill paid for at the hospital. Local hospital officials tell WMBF News with the way it is now, they have no choice but to charge.

"We have to cover it somehow," said Angela Williford, the Conway Medical Center Vice President of Quality. "There are fixed costs that have to be covered and so they get spread across all bills."

More than 8,000 people statewide have been selected to participate in the program. Hospitals are reaching out to the people who have showed up in ERs more than four times in a one year period. The Conway Medical Center plans to handle more than 150 uninsured patients, while Grand Strand Regional has nearly 300.

It's not just about the costs. Those working with hospitals are trying to make sure emergency rooms are actually being used for emergencies, because this affects how much time people spend waiting to get treatment. Medical professionals say emergency rooms should really only be used for urgent situations where a person needs medical attention, like a broken bone or a heart attack. Instead, uninsured people are filling up emergency rooms with chronic illnesses that could have been handled by seeing a primary care doctor.

Hospital administrators in the Grand Strand tell WMBF News the top type of problems that are being treated are psychiatric issues and substance abuse. The goal is to get them the right kind of help they need at a price everyone can afford.

"We can't continue to have patients manage their healthcare through the emergency room," said Williford. "It's too costly and it's not good for them in terms of their health. They can be more healthy in the long run if they have regular visits."

The healthy outcomes plan partners with six area non-profit care providers to help. This pilot program will go on for one year, and the state will evaluate it periodically to see if it's actually working. If it turns out to be successful, then the program could be expanded to help more people.

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