Long before the coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on health disparities faced by African-Americans, South Carolinians were plagued by the epidemic of diabetes, which also disproportionately affects vulnerable populations. While there are existing stakeholders hoping to reduce the incidence of diabetes, The Alliance for a Healthier SC is joining with a variety of organizations well-established in the trenches of diabetes care, including BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and the Department of Health and Environmental Control, to launch Diabetes Free SC (DFSC), a long-term, multi-million dollar, statewide initiative dedicated to addressing these disparities in care in three strategic directions: improved pregnancy outcomes in women with diabetes; reduced lifelong risk of diabetes in children; and the prevention of diabetes and its complications in adults. The BlueCross Foundation has recently awarded $11.6 million in three- to-five year grants to Prisma Health, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and FoodShareSC to support efforts in each of these categories.

Admittedly, according to Dr. Timothy Lyons, BlueCross’ executive medical director for DFSC, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at MUSC, the effort is an ambitious undertaking, but one that has enormous quality of life implications and profound economic consequences for health care expenditures in our state.

That’s because, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), more than 500,000 adults in the state have diagnosed diabetes while an additional 120,000 are unaware that they have the disease. Another 26,000 people in South Carolina will be diagnosed this year with diabetes. In addition, nearly 35% of the state’s adult population has prediabetes. And, African-Americans have a two times higher death rate from the disease than white adults. Moreover, diabetes is also a significant factor in other conditions such as kidney and cardiovascular disease, which disproportionately affects African-Americans.

In 2017, the most current numbers available, the ADA estimates that the annual cost of care for adult South Carolinians with diagnosed diabetes is estimated at $5.89 billion.

Lyons said, “The three strategic directions will run concurrently with detailed tactics employed to meet established success metrics. Improvement will be measured in multi-year increments.”

Here are high-level examples of DFSC’s goals:

To improve pregnancy outcomes in women with diabetes, the DFSC initiative expects to reduce unplanned hospital admissions for pregnancy complications by 50%.

To reduce lifelong risk of diabetes in children, the DFSC initiative expects to establish at least one evidence-based intervention in every school district in South Carolina to reduce risk of diabetes in students.

To prevent diabetes and its complications in adults, the DFSC initiative expects to demonstrate reduced prevalence of diabetes in a defined intervention population.

According to David Pankau, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, this effort reflects the organization’s commitment to improving the health of South Carolina communities. He said, “We believe that we can play a meaningful role in reducing disparities of care. Our vision for making a difference in this space has been under discussion for a long time. There is even more urgency now as diabetes brings additional risk in the midst of skyrocketing COVID-19 rates. As we build upon the good work already being done, we are putting a stake in the ground with our commitment.”