Funding community efforts to address social determinants of health

Now, more than ever, health care organizations need to develop sustainable partnerships within their communities

COVID-19 has put an enormous strain on the nation’s healthcare and social services sectors. While frontline health workers mitigate the virus's spread and provide routine clinical care under unprecedented conditions, community-based organizations (CBOs) face a skyrocketing demand for services as unemployment rates continue to fluctuate and communities are plunged into economic instability. Many CBOs are already buckling under the surge.

The novel coronavirus will remain a public health crisis for years to come, but we also must consider and plan for its long-term impact on our communities. Issues like poverty, housing and access to care — all social determinants of health (SDoH) —not only contribute to the spread of viral diseases but exacerbate these issues for individuals and families already struggling.

Now, more than ever, healthcare organizations need to develop sustainable partnerships with CBOs. Otherwise, we risk compounding existing health inequalities.

The role of CBOs in addressing health inequities

CBOs provide vital services to disadvantaged communities, ultimately supporting longer-term health outcomes and a higher quality of life. These needs include access to food, housing, employment, transportation and more. The pandemic has intensified the need for these services and the health inequities among disadvantaged communities across the country.

CBOs often rely on grants and private philanthropy, so gaps in funding and capacity limitations are common challenges, but the rising demand for services is causing an urgent need for additional funding. Financial support for these organizations is critical at this point in time.

New funding and reimbursement models for CBOs

There has been a growing interest in cross-sector partnerships between healthcare organizations and CBOs to address the total health and wellbeing of their communities. With increased awareness of the importance of addressing SDoH, Medicare, state governments, health plans and providers are increasingly collaborating with CBOs to connect their communities to social services.

Health plans play a particularly significant role in supporting CBOs in a number of ways. Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans are taking the lead by implementing a series of new policies, benefits and reimbursement options to support community-based work. For example, as part of Medicare Advantage, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has finalized new supplemental benefit provisions that encourage health plans to improve access to healthy foods, transportation to medical appointments and health and wellness education.

Additionally, commercial health plans are building partnerships with CBOs at a record rate. New funding mechanisms and collaborative strategies are increasingly becoming available to CBOs as many health plans continue to invest heavily in CBO partnerships. Some examples of these partnerships include investments in building and purchasing affordable housing for homeless populations and members experiencing housing instability. In Topeka, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas is sponsoring efforts by Healthify and United Way of Greater Topeka to disburse rent and utilities vouchers through CBO Community Action to individuals struggling to pay these housing-related expenses due to the pandemic. These types of partnerships not only add value to members, but they also enable CBOs to scale their work and continue to provide vital services for vulnerable populations with significant social needs.

Supporting communities through COVID and beyond

The pandemic is bringing more attention to the impact of socioeconomic factors on the health and well-being of communities nationwide. As we continue to grapple with the wide-reaching effects of the virus across all parts of our lives, we must continue to think about its long-term impact on SDoH and building sustainable, equitable partnerships with CBOs.

Healthcare organizations cannot do this work alone. CBOs are trusted members of their communities and have extensive experience addressing social needs. But CBOs also need support to continue to provide services as many of these organizations face greater constraints in capacity and underfunding. The relationships between healthcare organizations and CBOs are symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

The time is now for health plans, providers and policymakers to implement more reimbursement and financing models that offer sustainability and growth opportunities for CBOs. Without them, we will continue to face insurmountable hurdles on the path to health equity.

Manik Bhat is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Healthify.