Biden Administration’s Rapid-Test Rollout Doesn’t Easily Reach Those Who Need It Most

Biden Administration’s Rapid-Test Rollout Doesn’t Easily Reach Those Who Need It Most

In the past week, the Biden administration launched two programs that aim to get rapid covid tests into the hands of every American. But the design of both efforts disadvantages people who already face the greatest barriers to testing.

From the limit placed on test orders to the languages available on websites, the programs stand to leave out many people who don’t speak English or don’t have internet access, as well as those who live in multifamily households. All these barriers are more common for non-white Americans, who have also been hit hardest by covid. The White House told KHN it will address these problems but did not give specifics.

It launched a federally run website on Jan. 18 where people can order free tests sent directly to their homes. But there is a four-test limit per household. Many homes could quickly exceed their allotments — more than a third of Hispanic Americans plus about a quarter of Asian and Black Americans live in households with at least five residents, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by KFF. Only 17% of white Americans live in these larger groups.

“There are challenges that they have to work on for sure,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Also, as of Jan. 15, the federal government requires private insurers to reimburse consumers who purchase rapid tests.

When the federal website — with orders fulfilled and shipped through the United States Postal Service — went live this week, the first wave of sign-ups exposed serious issues.

Some people who live in multifamily residences, such as condos, dorms, and houses sectioned off into apartments, reported on social media that if one resident had already ordered tests to their address, the website didn’t allow for a second person to place an order.

“They’re going to have to figure out how to resolve it when you have multiple families living in the same dwelling and each member of the family needs at least one test. I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Benjamin said.

USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer said that while this seems to be a problem for only a small share of orders, people who encounter the issue should file a service request or contact the help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.

A White House official said 20% of shipments will be directed every day to people who live in vulnerable ZIP codes, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which identifies communities most in need of resources.

Another potential obstacle: Currently, only those with access to the internet can order the free rapid tests directly to their homes. Although some people can access the website on smartphones, the online-only access could still exclude millions of Americans: 27% of Native American households and 20% of Black households don’t have an internet subscription, according to a KHN analysis of Census Bureau data.

The federal website is currently available only in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

According to the White House, a phone line is also being launched to ease these types of issues. An aide said it is expected to be up and running by Jan. 21. But details are pending about the hours it will operate and whether translators will be available for people who don’t speak English.

However, the website is reaching one group left behind in the initial vaccine rollout: blind and low-vision Americans who use screen-reading technology. Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility organization, said the federal site “is very accessible. I see only a very few minor nitpicky things I might tweak.”

The Biden administration emphasized that people have options beyond the rapid-testing website. There are free federal testing locations, for instance, as well as testing capacity at homeless shelters and other congregate settings.

Many Americans with private health plans could get help with the cost of tests from the Biden administration reimbursement directive. In the days since its unveiling, insurers said they have moved quickly to implement the federal requirements. But the new systems have proved difficult to navigate.

Consumers can obtain rapid tests — up to eight a month are covered — at retail stores and pharmacies. If the store is part of their health plan’s rapid-test network, the test is free. If not, they can buy it and seek reimbursement.

The program does not cover the 61 million beneficiaries who get health care through Medicare, or the estimated 31 million people who are uninsured. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are required to cover at-home rapid tests, but rules for those programs vary by state.

And the steps involved are complicated.

First, consumers must figure out which retailers are partnering with their health plans and then pick up the tests at the pharmacy counter. As of Jan. 19, however, only a few insurance companies had set up that direct-purchase option — and nearly all the major participating pharmacies were sold out of eligible rapid tests.

Instead, Americans are left to track down and buy rapid tests on their own and then send receipts to their insurance providers.

Many of the country’s largest insurance companies provide paper forms that customers must print, fill out, and mail along with a receipt and copy of the box’s product code. Only a few, including UnitedHealthcare and Anthem, have online submission options. Highmark, one of the largest Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates, for instance, has 16-step instructions for its online submission process that involves printing out a PDF form, signing it, and scanning and uploading it to its portal.

Nearly 1 in 4 households don’t own a desktop or laptop computer, according to the Census Bureau. Half of U.S. households where no adults speak English don’t have computers.

A KHN reporter checked the websites of several top private insurers and didn’t find information from any of them on alternatives for customers who don’t have computers, don’t speak English, or are unable to access the forms due to disabilities.

UnitedHealthcare and CareFirst spokespeople said that members can call their customer service lines for help with translation or submitting receipts. Several other major insurance companies did not respond to questions.

Once people make it through the submission process, the waiting begins. A month or more after a claim is processed, most insurers send a check in the mail covering the costs.

And that leads to another wrinkle. Not everyone can easily deposit a check. About 1 in 7 Black and 1 in 8 Hispanic households don’t have checking or savings accounts, compared with 1 in 40 white households, according to a federal report. Disabled Americans are also especially likely to be “unbanked.” They would have to pay high fees at check-cashing shops to claim their money.

“It’s critically important that we are getting testing out, but there are limitations with this program,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “These challenges around getting tests to individuals with language barriers or who are homeless are sadly the same drivers of disparities that we see with other health conditions.”

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber contributed to this report.

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Why an HBCU Med School Decided to Put CARES Act Money Into Students’ Pockets

Why an HBCU Med School Decided to Put CARES Act Money Into Students’ Pockets

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just before students at Meharry Medical College went home for Thanksgiving, Dr. James Hildreth, the school’s president, emailed them a video message that he acknowledged seemed hard to believe. Or at least they had to give it a second listen.

“We’ll gift each of you $10,000 in cash,” he said, looking at the camera. “You heard me right.”

They were told to expect a direct deposit the next day or pick up a check in person. Hildreth, an expert in infectious diseases who helped lead Nashville’s pandemic response, explained that this gift with no strings attached was money from the CARES Act, a major covid-19 relief law passed by Congress in 2020. He asked only that they be “good stewards” of the windfall.

After deep consideration, Meharry’s administration decided to give roughly a third of its CARES Act funding — $10 million — directly to its future doctors, dentists and public health researchers. All told, 956 students received payments.

Meharry’s students had already been heavily involved in the pandemic response, staffing Nashville’s mass covid testing and vaccination sites. But the money isn’t so much surprise compensation for volunteer efforts as it is an investment in a future career — and an assist in overcoming financial hurdles Black students especially face to become medical professionals.

While Black Americans make up roughly 13% of the population, the Association of American Medical Colleges finds Black doctors account for just 5% of the nation’s working physicians — a figure that has grown slowly over more than a century. And studies have found that Black patients often want to be cared for by someone whom they consider culturally competent in acknowledging their heritage, beliefs and values during treatment.

Meharry graduates more Black physicians than almost any other U.S. school. And half of its M.D.s enter the high-demand but lower-paying specialty of primary care.

“We felt that there was no better way to begin distributing these funds than by giving to our students who will soon give so much to our world,” Hildreth said.

Cheers erupted in the library as students clicked the video link.

Andreas Nelson fell silent, he recalled later. He went to his banking app and stared in disbelief. “$10,000 was sitting just in my bank account. It was astonishing,” he said. “I was literally lost for words.”

The Chicago native is finishing a master’s degree in health and science at Meharry with hopes of entering its dental school. The average student loan debt in the program totals more than $280,000. So, undoubtedly, 10 grand won’t make much of a dent in the debt.

But the money in his pocket eases his top concern of making rent each month. Nelson said it feels as though he’s being treated like an adult, allowing him to decide what his greatest needs are in getting through school.

“It’s motivating,” Nelson said. “Because that means they have trust in us to do with this money whatever the cause may be — whether it be student debt, investing or just personal enjoyment.”

Across the board, students at HBCUs rely more on student loans than students at historically white institutions. Roughly 80% take out student loans, according to an analysis by UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, and they borrow considerably more.

Meharry was founded a decade after the Civil War to help those who had been enslaved. But the 145-year-old institution has always struggled financially, and so have its students.

The reasons are rooted in the country’s racist past, which has left the institutions with less money potentially available for scholarships than other universities. And students’ families generally have less wealth to tap into since Black households across the country have averaged around $17,000 in net worth — about a tenth of the average for white families.

Meharry’s average student debt is far higher than other area schools of medicine at Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee, representing both private and public institutions.

Virtually all colleges and universities received allotments under the CARES Act, but HBCUs have been much more aggressive about funneling substantial amounts directly to students, who tend to have greater need. More than 20 HBCUs have erased outstanding tuition balances. Some have canceled student fees.

But Meharry, one of the few stand-alone HBCU graduate schools, is a rare case in cutting checks for students.

“These young people are rising to medical school against all odds,” said Lodriguez Murray, who leads public policy and government affairs at UNCF. “Of course, they have to borrow more because people who look like them have less.”

During the pandemic, major philanthropists have taken new interest in supporting the few HBCU medical schools. Michael Bloomberg committed $100 million to four institutions, including Meharry, to help educate more Black doctors.

Students at Meharry can now apply for $100,000 scholarships. The $34 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies is also going toward other kinds of financial support.

The school is now offering, for no additional fee, expensive test-prep services through a Boston-based company, MedSchoolCoach. The service, which entails paying a doctor by the hour to help with studying, can cost thousands of dollars.

While the price is often out of reach for students tight on cash, acing the benchmark exams toward board licensure is key to landing coveted fellowships, qualifying for lucrative specialties or just finishing on time. And Meharry’s four-year completion rate of roughly 70% is below most schools. The most up-to-date national average is around 82%.

For some, Murray said, a $10,000 windfall may make all the difference in whether they cross the finish line and become a doctor who can afford all their medical school debt.

“Many of those students are borrowing a lot of money to complete their dream, and to become relatively high earners in the future,” Murray said. “The fact that these students are largely coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds means that the funds that Meharry turned around and gave to the students are particularly impactful.”

This story is from a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio and KHN.

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BLACK TECH FOUNDERS WANT TO CHANGE THE CULTURE OF HEALTH CARE, ONE CLICK AT A TIME

BLACK TECH FOUNDERS WANT TO CHANGE THE CULTURE OF HEALTH CARE, ONE CLICK AT A TIME

When Ashlee Wisdom launched an early version of her health and wellness website, more than 34,000 users — most of them Black — visited the platform in the first two weeks.

“It wasn’t the most fully functioning platform,” recalled Wisdom, 31. “It was not sexy.”

But the launch was successful. Now, more than a year later, Wisdom’s company, Health in Her Hue, connects Black women and other women of color to culturally sensitive doctors, doulas, nurses and therapists nationally.

As more patients seek culturally competent care — the acknowledgment of a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values during treatment — a new wave of Black tech founders like Wisdom want to help. In the same way Uber Eats and Grubhub revolutionized food delivery, Black tech health startups across the United States want to change how people exercise, how they eat and how they communicate with doctors.

Inspired by their own experiences, plus those of their parents and grandparents, Black entrepreneurs are launching startups that aim to close the cultural gap in health care with technology — and create profitable businesses at the same time.

“One of the most exciting growth opportunities across health innovation is to back underrepresented founders building health companies focusing on underserved markets,” said Unity Stoakes, president and co-founder of StartUp Health, a company headquartered in San Francisco that has invested in a number of health companies led by people of color. He said those leaders have “an essential and powerful understanding of how to solve some of the biggest challenges in health care.”

Platforms created by Black founders for Black people and communities of color continue to blossom because those entrepreneurs often see problems and solutions others might miss. Without diverse voices, entire categories and products simply would not exist in critical areas like health care, business experts say.

“We’re really speaking to a need,” said Kevin Dedner, 45, founder of the mental health startup Hurdle. “Mission alone is not enough. You have to solve a problem.”

Dedner’s company, headquartered in Washington, D.C., pairs patients with therapists who “honor culture instead of ignoring it,” he said. He started the company three years ago, but more people turned to Hurdle after the killing of George Floyd.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Erica Plybeah, 33, is focused on providing transportation. Her company, MedHaul, works with providers and patients to secure low-cost rides to get people to and from their medical appointments. Caregivers, patients or providers fill out a form on MedHaul’s website, then Plybeah’s team helps them schedule a ride.

While MedHaul is for everyone, Plybeah knows people of color, anyone with a low income and residents of rural areas are more likely to face transportation hurdles. She founded the company in 2017 after years of watching her mother take care of her grandmother, who had lost two limbs to Type 2 diabetes. They lived in the Mississippi Delta, where transportation options were scarce.

“For years, my family struggled with our transportation because my mom was her primary transporter,” Plybeah said. “Trying to schedule all of her doctor’s appointments around her work schedule was just a nightmare.”

Plybeah’s company recently received funding from Citi, the banking giant.

“I’m more than proud of her,” said Plybeah’s mother, Annie Steele. “Every step amazes me. What she is doing is going to help people for many years to come.”

Health in Her Hue launched in 2018 with just six doctors on the roster. Two years later, users can download the app at no cost and then scroll through roughly 1,000 providers.

“People are constantly talking about Black women’s poor health outcomes, and that’s where the conversation stops,” said Wisdom, who lives in New York City. “I didn’t see anyone building anything to empower us.”

As her business continues to grow, Wisdom draws inspiration from friends such as Nathan Pelzer, 37, another Black tech founder, who has launched a company in Chicago. Clinify Health works with community health centers and independent clinics in underserved communities. The company analyzes medical and social data to help doctors identify their most at-risk patients and those they haven’t seen in awhile. By focusing on getting those patients preventive care, the medical providers can help them improve their health and avoid trips to the emergency room.

“You can think of Clinify Health as a company that supports triage outside of the emergency room,” Pelzer said.

Pelzer said he started the company by printing out online slideshows he’d made and throwing them in the trunk of his car. “I was driving around the South Side of Chicago, knocking on doors, saying, ‘Hey, this is my idea,’” he said.

Wisdom got her app idea from being so stressed while working a job during grad school that she broke out in hives.

“It was really bad,” Wisdom recalled. “My hand would just swell up, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

The breakouts also baffled her allergist, a white woman, who told Wisdom to take two Allegra every day to manage the discomfort. “I remember thinking if she was a Black woman, I might have shared a bit more about what was going on in my life,” Wisdom said.

The moment inspired her to build an online community. Her idea started off small. She found health content in academic journals, searched for eye-catching photos that would complement the text and then posted the information on Instagram.

Things took off from there. This fall, Health in Her Hue launched “care squads” for users who want to discuss their health with doctors or with other women interested in the same topics.

“The last thing you want to do when you go into the doctor’s office is feel like you have to put on an armor and feel like you have to fight the person or, like, you know, be at odds with the person who’s supposed to be helping you on your health journey,” Wisdom said. “And that’s oftentimes the position that Black people, and largely also Black women, are having to deal with as they’re navigating health care. And it just should not be the case.”

As Black tech founders, Wisdom, Dedner, Pelzer and Plybeah look for ways to support one another by trading advice, chatting about funding and looking for ways to come together. Pelzer and Wisdom met a few years ago as participants in a competition sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. They reconnected at a different event for Black founders of technology companies and decided to help each other.

“We’re each other’s therapists,” Pelzer said. “It can get lonely out here as a Black founder.”

In the future, Plybeah wants to offer transportation services and additional assistance to people caring for aging family members. She also hopes to expand the service to include dropping off customers for grocery and pharmacy runs, workouts at gyms and other basic errands.

Pelzer wants Clinify Health to make tracking health care more fun — possibly with incentives to keep users engaged. He is developing plans and wants to tap into the same competitive energy that fitness companies do.

Wisdom wants to support physicians who seek to improve their relationships with patients of color. The company plans to build a library of resources that professionals could use as a guide.

“We’re not the first people to try to solve these problems,” Dedner said. Yet he and the other three feel the pressure to succeed for more than just themselves and those who came before them.

“I feel like, if I fail, that’s potentially going to shut the door for other Black women who are trying to build in this space,” Wisdom said. “But I try not to think about that too much.”

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With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

In the 1960s, health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse and much of it was segregated. Some hospitals were dedicated to Black patients, but they often struggled to stay afloat. At the height of the civil rights movement, young Black doctors launched a movement of their own to address the care disparity.

“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated,” said Dr. Robert Smith. “The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”

In 1967, Smith helped start Delta Health Center, the country’s first rural community health center. They put the clinic in Mound Bayou, a small town in the heart of the Delta, in northwestern Mississippi. The center became a national model and is now one of nearly 1,400 such clinics across the country. These clinics, called federally qualified health centers, are a key resource in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where about 2 in 5 people live in rural areas. Throughout the U.S., about 1 in 5 people live in rural areas.

The covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing rural health care, such as lack of broadband internet access and limited public transportation. For much of the vaccine rollout, those barriers have made it difficult for providers, like community health centers, to get shots into the arms of their patients.

“I just assumed that [the vaccine] would flow like water, but we really had to pry open the door to get access to it,” said Smith, who still practices family medicine in Mississippi.

Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers.

The once-thriving downtown was home to some of the first Black-owned businesses in the state. Today the town is dotted with shuttered or rundown banks, hotels and gas stations.

Mitch Williams grew up on a Mound Bayou farm in the 1930s and ’40s and spent long days working the soil.

“If you would cut yourself, they wouldn’t put no sutures in, no stitches in it. You wrapped it up and kept going,” Williams said.

When Delta Health Center started operations in 1967, it was explicitly for all residents of all races — and free to those who needed financial help.

Williams, 85, was one of its first patients.

“They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care,” he said.

Residents really needed it. In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing.

At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans.

Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation. Staffers believed these factors affected health outcomes, too.

Williams, who later worked for Delta Health, said he’s not sure where the community would be today if the center didn’t exist.

“It’s frightening to think of it,” he said.

Half a century later, the Delta Health Center continues to provide accessible and affordable care in and around Mound Bayou.

Black Southerners still face barriers to health. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Black residents accounted for nearly half of covid deaths in Alabama and over 70% in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Public health data from last month shows that Black residents of those states have consistently been more likely to die of covid than residents of other races.

“We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with covid,” said Nadia Bethley, a clinical psychologist at the center. “It’s been tough.”

Delta Health Center has grown over the decades, from a few trailers in Mound Bayou to a chain of 18 clinics across five counties. It’s managed to vaccinate over 5,500 people against covid. The majority have been Black.

“We don’t have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It’s the people who work here,” Bethley said.

The Mississippi State Department of Health said it has prioritized health centers since the beginning of the rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman said the center was receiving only a couple of hundred doses a week in January and February. The supply became more consistent around early March, center officials said.

“Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning,” Fairman said. Fairman said his center saw success with vaccinations because of its long-standing relationships with the local communities.

“Use the infrastructure that’s already in place, that has community trust,” said Fairman.

That was the entire point of the health center movement in the first place, said Smith. He said states that were slow to use health centers in the vaccine rollout made a mistake that has made it difficult to get a handle on covid in the most vulnerable communities.

Smith called the slow dispersal of vaccines to rural health centers “an example of systemic racism that continues.”

A spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department said it is “committed to providing vaccines to rural areas but, given the rurality of Mississippi, it is a real challenge.”

Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the low dose allocation to rural health clinics and community health centers early on is “going to cost lives.”

“With hospitalizations and mortality much higher in rural communities, these states need to focus on the hot spots, which in many cases are these small towns,” Morgan said of the vaccine efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

A report from KFF found that people of color made up the majority of people vaccinated at community health centers and that the centers seem to be vaccinating people at rates similar to or higher than their share of the population. (The KHN newsroom, which collaborated to produce this story, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The report added that “ramping up health centers’ involvement in vaccination efforts at the federal, state and local levels” could be a meaningful step in “advancing equity on a larger scale.”

Equal access to care in rural communities is necessary to reach the most vulnerable populations and is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the 1960s, according to Smith.

“When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans,” Smith said.

This story is from a partnership that includes NPR, KHN and the three stations that make up the Gulf States Newsroom: Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama; and WWNO in New Orleans.

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Hospitals, Insurers Invest Big Dollars to Tackle Patients’ Social Needs

Hospitals, Insurers Invest Big Dollars to Tackle Patients’ Social Needs

PHILADELPHIA — When doctors at a primary care clinic here noticed many of its poorest patients were failing to show up for appointments, they hoped giving out free rides would help.

But the one-time complimentary ride didn’t reduce these patients’ 36% no-show rate at the University of Pennsylvania Health System clinics.

“I was super surprised it did not have any effect,” said Dr. Krisda Chaiyachati, the Penn researcher who led the 2018 study of 786 Medicaid patients.

Many of the patients did not take advantage of the ride because they were either saving it for a more important medical appointment or preferred their regular travel method, such as catching a ride from a friend, a subsequent study found.

It was not the first time that efforts by a health care provider to address patients’ social needs — such as food, housing and transportation — failed to work.

In the past decade, dozens of studies funded by state and federal governments, private hospitals, insurers and philanthropic organizations have looked into whether addressing patients’ social needs improves health and lowers medical costs.

But so far it’s unclear which of these strategies, focused on so-called social determinants of health, are most effective or feasible, according to several recent academic reports by experts at Columbia, Duke and the University of California-San Francisco that evaluated existing research.

And even when such interventions show promising results, they usually serve only a small number of patients. Another challenge is that several studies did not go on long enough to detect an impact, or they did not evaluate health outcomes or health costs.

“We are probably at a peak of inflated expectations, and it is incumbent on us to find the innovations that really work,” said Dr. Laura Gottlieb, director of the UCSF Social Interventions Research and Evaluation Network. “Yes, there’s a lot of hype, and not all of these interventions will have staying power.”

With health care providers and insurers eager to find ways to lower costs, the limited success of social-need interventions has done little to slow the surge of pilot programs — fueled by billions of private and government dollars.

Paying for Health, Not Just Health Care

Across the country, both public and private health insurance programs are launching large initiatives aimed at improving health by helping patients with unmet social needs. One of the biggest efforts kicks off next year in North Carolina, which is spending $650 million over five years to test the effect of giving Medicaid enrollees assistance with housing, food and transportation.

California is redesigning its Medicaid program, which covers nearly 14 million residents, to dramatically increase social services to enrollees.

These moves mark a major turning point for Medicaid, which, since its inception in 1965, largely has prohibited government spending on most nonmedical services. To get around this, states have in recent years sought waivers from the federal government and pushed private Medicaid health plans to address enrollees’ social needs.

The move to address social needs is gaining steam nationally because, after nearly a dozen years focused on expanding insurance under the Affordable Care Act, many experts and policymakers agree that simply increasing access to health care is not nearly enough to improve patients’ health.

That’s because people don’t just need access to doctors, hospitals and drugs to be healthy, they also need healthy homes, healthy food, adequate transportation and education, a steady income, safe neighborhoods and a home life free from domestic violence — things hospitals and doctors can’t provide, but that in the long run are as meaningful as an antibiotic or an annual physical.

Researchers have known for decades that social problems such as unstable housing and lack of access to healthy foods can significantly affect a patient’s health, but efforts by the health industry to take on these challenges didn’t really take off until 2010 with the passage of the ACA. The law spurred changes in how insurers pay health providers — moving them away from receiving a set fee for each service to payments based on value and patient outcomes.

As a result, hospitals now have a financial incentive to help patients with nonclinical problems — such as housing and food insecurity — that can affect health.

Temple University Health System in Philadelphia launched a two-year program last year to help 25 homeless Medicaid patients who frequently use its emergency room and other ERs in the city by providing them free housing, and caseworkers to help them access other health and social services. It helps them furnish their apartments, connects them to healthy delivered meals and assists with applications for income assistance such as Social Security.

To qualify, participants had to have used the ER at least four times in the previous year and had at least $10,000 in medical claims that year.

Temple has seen promising results when comparing patients’ experiences before the study to the first five months they were all housed. In that time, the participants’ average number of monthly ER visits fell 75% and inpatient hospital admissions dropped 79%.

At the same time, their use of outpatient services jumped by 50% — an indication that patients are seeking more appropriate and lower-cost settings for care.

Living Life as ‘Normal People Do’

One participant is Rita Stewart, 53, who now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, home to many college students and young families.

“Everyone knows everyone,” Stewart said excitedly from her second-floor walk-up. It’s “a very calm area, clean environment. And I really like it.”

Before joining the Temple program in July and getting housing assistance, Stewart was living in a substance abuse recovery home. She had spent a few years bouncing among friends’ homes and other recovery centers. Once she slept in the city bus terminal.

In 2019, Stewart had visited the Temple ER four times for various health concerns, including anxiety, a heart condition and flu.

Stewart meets with her caseworkers at least once a week for help scheduling doctor appointments, arranging group counseling sessions and managing household needs.

“It’s a blessing,” she said from her apartment with its small kitchen and comfy couch.

“I have peace of mind that I am able to walk into my own place, leave when I want to, sleep when I want to,” Stewart said. “I love my privacy. I just look around and just wow. I am grateful.”

Stewart has sometimes worked as a nursing assistant and has gotten her health care through Medicaid for years. She still deals with depression, she said, but having her own home has improved her mood. And the program has helped keep her out of the hospital.

“This is a chance for me to take care of myself better,” she said.

Her housing assistance help is set to end next year when the Temple program ends, but administrators said they hope to find all the participants permanent housing and jobs.

“Hopefully that will work out and I can just live my life like normal people do and take care of my priorities and take care of my bills and things that a normal person would do,” Stewart said.

“Housing is the second-most impactful social determinant of health after food security,” said Steven Carson, a senior vice president at Temple University Health System. “Our goal is to help them bring meaningful and lasting health improvement to their lives.”

Success Doesn’t Come Cheap

Temple is helping pay for the program; other funding comes from two Medicaid health plans, a state grant and a Pittsburgh-based foundation. A nonprofit human services organization helps operate the program.

Program organizers hope the positive results will attract additional financing so they can expand to help many more homeless patients.

The effort is expensive. The “Housing Smart” program cost $700,000 to help 25 people for one year, or $28,000 per person. To put this in perspective, a single ER visit can cost a couple of thousands of dollars. And “frequent flyer” patients can tally up many times that in ER visits and follow-up care.

If Temple wants to help dozens more patients with housing, it will need tens of millions of dollars more per year.

Still, Temple officials said they expect the effort will save money over the long run by reducing expensive hospital visits — but they don’t yet have the data to prove that.

The Temple program was partly inspired by a similar housing effort started at two Duke University clinics in Durham, North Carolina. That program, launched in 2016, has served 45 patients with unstable housing and has reduced their ER use. But it’s been unable to grow because housing funding remains limited. And without data showing the intervention saves on health care costs, the organizers have been unable to attract more financing.

Often there is a need to demonstrate an overall reduction in health care spending to attract Medicaid funding.

“We know homelessness is bad for your health, but we are in the early stages of knowing how to address it,” said Dr. Seth Berkowitz, a researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Results Remain to Be Seen

“We need to pay for health not just health care,” said Elena Marks, CEO of the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation, which provides grants to community clinics and organizations to help address the social needs of vulnerable populations.

The nationwide push to spend more on social services is driven first by the recognition that social and economic forces have a greater impact on health than do clinical services like doctor visits, Marks said. A second factor is that the U.S. spends far less on social services per capita compared with other large, industrialized nations.

“This is a new and emerging field,” Marks said when reviewing the evaluations of the many social determinants of health studies. “The evidence is weak for some, mixed for some, and strong for a few areas.”

But despite incomplete evidence, Marks said, the status quo isn’t working either: Americans generally have poorer health than their counterparts in other industrialized countries with more robust social services.

“At some point we keep paying you more and more, Mr. Hospital, and people keep getting less and less. So, let’s go look for some other solutions” Marks said.

The covid-19 pandemic has shined further light on the inequities in access to health services and sparked interest in Medicaid programs to address social issues. Over half of states are implementing or expanding Medicaid programs that address social needs, according to a KFF study in October 2020. (The KHN newsroom is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The Medicaid interventions are not intense in many states: Often they involve simply screening patients for social needs problems or referring them to another agency for help. Only two states — Arizona and Oregon — require their Medicaid health plans to directly invest money into pilot programs to address the social problems that screening reveals, according to a survey by consulting firm Manatt.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which is funding a growing number of efforts to help Medicaid patients with social needs, said it “remains committed” to helping states meet enrollees’ social challenges including education, employment and housing.

On Jan. 7, CMS officials under the Trump administration sent guidance to states to accelerate these interventions. In May, under President Joe Biden, a CMS spokesperson told KHN: “Evidence indicates that some social interventions targeted at Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries can result in improved health outcomes and significant savings to the health care sector.”

The agency cited a 2017 survey of 17 state Medicaid directors in which most reported they recognized the importance of social determinants of health. The directors also noted barriers to address them, such as cost and sustainability.

In Philadelphia, Temple officials now face the challenge of finding new financing to keep their housing program going.

“We are trying to find the magic sauce to keep this program running,” said Patrick Vulgamore, project manager for Temple’s Center for Population Health.

Sojourner Ahebee, health equity fellow at WHYY’s health and science show, “The Pulse,” contributed to this report.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WHYY, NPR and KHN.

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