New partnership to help SC seniors access healthcare in rural, underserved areas

Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 10:10 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A new partnership could help thousands of seniors across South Carolina access healthcare.

It comes at a time when healthcare leaders say telehealth, which became more popular than ever during the pandemic, is here to stay.

Within about the next decade, a quarter of South Carolina’s population will be 65 and older, according to the state’s Department on Aging.

State leaders are working to ensure those seniors are able to access healthcare, especially in rural and underserved parts of South Carolina.

“To know that our doctors and physicians and the power behind the technology care about every single one of our rural family members, who are in deserts where there are hospitals closing, where doctors’ offices and doctors aren’t there for those family members during those critical times,” Rep. Mark Smith (R – Berkeley) said.

The partnership between the South Carolina Department on Aging and the nonprofit Palmetto Care Connections will put telehealth carts in 18 senior centers and councils on aging across the state.

Using these carts, staff at the centers will be able to assist seniors with telehealth visits with their primary and specialty care doctors without needing to physically be in the doctor’s office.

“It’ll cut down on the risk of being exposed to other illnesses and the travel time it takes to get to other specialists, so we’re very, very excited about this opportunity,” Department on Aging Director Connie Munn said.

These carts have been available since 2021 through a pilot program in Allendale, Bamberg, and Barnwell counties.

Now money from the federal government will allow them to bring this access to 18 offices in 14 new counties across the state: Cherokee, Chesterfield, Dillon, Georgetown, Greenwood, Hampton, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, McCormick, Orangeburg, Oconee, Sumter, and Williamsburg.

Palmetto Care Connections CEO Kathy Schwarting said out of the nearly 150 offices on aging across the state, they selected rural locations with some of South Carolina’s highest health disparities.

Eventually, they want to make these carts available at every office in all 46 counties.

“The ultimate goal is that a senior would be able to do a telehealth visit from home with a device that they have an internet service that they have. So this is sort of like an intermediary until we can get internet in all of the homes,” Schwarting said.

The Department on Aging said most seniors in the state are on Medicare, which it said does a good job covering telehealth visits. When the legislature returns to Columbia at the start of next year, Munn said the department will push to ensure private insurance covers more of these visits as well.

While the money for this expansion came from the federal government, Munn and Schwarting said the state legislature has played a huge role in promoting telehealth and laying the foundation that made Monday’s announcement possible.