The Duke Endowment awarded a $500,000 grant to a coalition of local health care providers to coordinate services for uninsured patients in Beaufort and Jasper counties.
The new system is not expected to be running until the summer of 2012, but hospital administrators already are championing it as a solution to a problem that had become worse since the recession.
"Many uninsured don't have what we call a 'medical home' to go to," said Cindy Coburn-Smith of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, which led the coalition's efforts.
"They might get a CT scan at one hospital and then get the same thing done at another hospital a few months later," she said. "This will help avoid the duplication of those services."
The system, which will be called the AccessHealth Lowcountry Network, will refer patients between 18 and 64 -- before they become eligible for Medicaid and Medicare -- to a provider that will serve as their medical home.
There, the patients will have access to a primary-care team able to provide preventative screenings, treatment of chronic disease and management of their medications.
According to the S.C. Hospital Association, Beaufort County has about 33,000 uninsured residents. About one in six state residents have no health insurance, and last year, state hospitals provided more than $1 billion in unpaid services to uninsured patients.
Coburn-Smith said a disproportionately high number of uninsured patients' hospital visits were to emergency rooms, which she attributed in part to a reluctance to seek care except in extreme circumstances.
"When you lose your health insurance, it's a real lifestyle change," she said. "Your medical and dental care go way down the list of things that become important, like providing for your family."
Mark Senn, senior director of Beaufort Memorial Hospital's LifeFit Wellness Services, said he's already helping coordinate efforts to hire a director and two case managers for the network.
In addition to providing more personalized care for patients, the network will also save publicly funded hospitals and care providers money by enhancing providers' access to medical records.
Fred Leyda, facilitator of the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, said such transparency had previously been precluded by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, but provisions for the ethical standard had been built into the new network.
Leyda said not all of the people who will benefit from the network are unemployed.
"This will help lots of people who work for small businesses," he said. "Not all jobs come with benefits, and there are a lot of underinsured people out there."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.