Lafayette Parish emergency room visits number in the six digits every year, and many of those visits aren’t fully paid for. That’s a huge drain on Lafayette General Health System, which rang up around $250 million in uncompensated care last year, said Cian Robinson, executive director of Lafayette General Foundation.

Much of the uncompensated care is rendered to patients who repeatedly visit the emergency room, Robinson said, and for unmet social-service needs outside the medical realm.

“We can handle their medical side,” Robinson said. “What we can’t take care of is: Are they homeless? Do they have access to prescription medicine? Do they have a decent diet?”

A new pilot program called the Beacon Project aims to connect these patients with social services before they leave the hospital, with the aim of ensuring they don’t wind up back in the emergency room.

The program is a collaboration of the health system, social service referral agency 232-HELP and the Justice and Health Collaborative, which focuses on reducing unnecessary hospitalization and incarceration. It is receiving $124,000, almost all of it from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.

Here’s how it works: Patients’ electronic medical records are screened as they are treated at the emergency room, and those with certain mental health needs and chronic medical conditions are automatically flagged for referral to 232-HELP, which has access to a database of more than 1,900 agencies. Two new 232-HELP staffers will be dedicated to emergency room patients from Lafayette General Medical Center, Lafayette General Southwest and University Hospitals and Clinics.

Those three campuses combined for 145,000 emergency room visits in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Robinson said. Given that volume, the Beacon Project’s aim of reaching 1,000 patients in its first year seems relatively modest. But organizers say the project is the first of its kind in Louisiana, and they hope early success will help it spread throughout the state.

“You take the model from Lafayette Parish, you take it over to Lake Charles, you take it down to Houma, Thibodaux and Morgan City, and that’s where it starts to make a lot of sense,” Robinson said.

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