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‘Access’ to healthcare continues thanks to $500,000 Duke Endowment grant

Posted: December 6, 2013 4:41 p.m.
Updated: December 9, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The Duke Endowment recently awarded a two-year, $500,000 grant to KershawHealth to expand Access Kershaw’s community network of care for low-income, high risk patients in Kershaw County, many of whom are uninsured. Access Kershaw is a strategic partnership between KershawHealth, Kershaw County Community Medical Clinic, Sandhills Medical Foundation, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, S.C. Department of Mental Health, and the ALPHA Center.

“KershawHealth has a long and productive relationship with all of these groups, and it has been gratifying to see the interplay that led to the development of Access Kershaw,” noted former KershawHealth CEO Donnie Weeks when the grant was awarded. “Access Kershaw is a critical point of contact for uninsured patients in the county, and it has a great positive impact on the health of those it serves. It is a blessing to see that happen.”

Since its inception, virtually all of the funding for Access Kershaw has been provided by grants from The Duke Endowment. Local groups and organizations have provided some additional funds, but the program receives no county, state, or federal tax funding.

 “Improving access to care for the low-income uninsured has been a priority for the Endowment,” Mary Piepenbring, vice president of The Duke Endowment, said. “The Access Kershaw program helps ensure that patients in this vulnerable population are connected to medical homes and a full continuum of quality health care services.”

It’s estimated that roughly one in six South Carolinians has no health insurance. They’re friends, family members, and neighbors. They are people who often have to decide between putting food on the table and visiting the doctor, or between paying the power bill and buying critical medication. Kershaw County’s safety-net providers have a long history of collaboration and partnerships, including a strong patient referral network and a shared database of mutual patients. And yet, there are still gaps -- particularly regarding healthcare -- and simply navigating a complex system of services can be daunting.

That is where Access Kershaw comes in -- working with its network of partners to help the uninsured and underinsured find help, coordinate provider services, and develop a plan for ongoing care based on available options. Staff nurses and case managers provide an initial assessment of a client’s needs so they can be connected to the appropriate healthcare providers. Additionally, they provide intensive case management services to high risk patients, who often suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension.

“The resources to help these folks are there … they already exist. The problem is most people don’t know what’s available or how to get that assistance, especially when it comes to healthcare” Access Kershaw Director Kelly Warnock, a family nurse practitioner, said. “We are that missing link. Our patients might need help applying for Medicaid or SNAP assistance through The Benefit Bank, finding a physician or affordable specialty care, getting help paying for medications, or accessing mental health or social services. We can help them sort out all of that.”

That’s just what Access Kershaw did for Charles Dease, who was left with brain damage and chronic back pain after an ATV rollover accident in 2006. In addition, he had developed a cancerous tumor on his ear. Unable to work, he was without health insurance and felt the emergency room was his only option for care -- until he was referred to Access Kershaw. There, Dease was connected with Sandhills Medical Foundation, which became his medical home. They, in turn, referred him to a specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina who removed the basal cell carcinoma on his ear. Care coordinators at Access Kershaw also helped him apply for disability, receive Medicaid, and sort his way through other options. It was the hope and help that he needed.

Today, Dease is quick to refer others to Access Kershaw.

“They made me understand they could help me, and that was my turning point. I said, ‘Wow, there really are people out there that care and love you.’ I go to bed each night and thank the good Lord for everything that I got and I say a prayer for these people. I’m glad they could be here for me and other people as well,” Dease said.

There is no lack of Kershaw County citizens needing such assistance. Since its inception in 2011, Access Kershaw has served nearly 6,000 patients. But its success is measured in more than patient visits. Access Kershaw is a model of healthcare collaboration that gets results. In 2012, the program saw a 35 percent decrease in inpatient hospitalizations among its patients, and a 22 percent decrease in emergency department utilization. In addition, its patients showed significant improvements in both blood pressure and diabetic hemoglobin counts.

“We’re really facilitators and an additional support mechanism for the healthcare providers in Kershaw County. That’s very important for those with chronic conditions like diabetes, and that’s what is behind the improvements we’re seeing in our patients,” Warnock said. “We can spend an hour with someone discussing why their blood sugar is high, really digging for answers, and coaching them to make changes.”

Warnock is quick to point out that their goal at Access Kershaw is to get their patients connected to the resources they need to get on track to better health, and then send them on their way.

“I often say that our goal at Access Kershaw is to work ourselves right out of a job. Our greatest success stories are the people we don’t see anymore because they no longer need us,” Warnock said.

Currently, Access Kershaw operates out of office space in Elgin, and Warnock spends two days each week at the Community Medical Clinic in Camden assisting and enrolling clients. In the future, the partnership would like to make Access Kershaw more mobile, taking it into additional communities and the rural areas of the county, where residents often face significant barriers to healthcare access.

To see more success stories, including a video featuring Charles Dease, or for more information on Access Kershaw and the Access Health SC network of providers, go to http://www.scha.org/accesshealth-sc.

(This information provided by KershawHealth.)

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