A healthy community links social services with medical providers

It’s common knowledge that access to quality health care, diet and exercise greatly impacts our health. But far less attention has been given to other variables that also impact our health, like economic and social factors— also called “social determinants” of health. Now, data increasingly confirms that access to social services and reliable transportation, for instance, have a profound impact on health. The CDC even has a “life expectancy at birth” map that estimates your life expectancy based on your zip code. Where you live should not impact your access to quality health care and social services. Experts and providers across the country are increasingly focused on these social determinants to improve outcomes and lower costs.

All too often, people go to the emergency room when they would be better served by another service provider. For example, someone struggling with homelessness might visit the emergency room for a meal and a safe bed instead of a shelter where they could receive additional vital services. Because doctors and emergency room staff are often not trained on community resources, partnerships between the healthcare sector and social services sector would provide better care for people who need help and save money in the long run.

We have already seen success in some states where local governments, providers, health plans, and community-based organizations are collaborating with social service agencies and nonprofits to better coordinate services. The state of Alaska took steps to incorporate social determinants of health by including specific language about these determinants in our Medicaid program which will ensure that the most vulnerable are being taken care of.

Unfortunately, the siloed nature of our current health care system — as well as our social services — can act as a deterrent to such partnerships. As a result, doctors and emergency rooms are often overburdened by trying to fix problems they are ill prepared to handle and to get help for their patients outside of the traditional medical system. Likewise, while there are dozens of programs to help those most impacted by social determinants of health, our social service agencies continue to see unmet health needs.

A bill that I, along with Chris Murphy (D-CT), introduced, the Leveraging Integrated Networks in Communities (LINC) to Address Social Needs Act (S.509), will award grants to states to develop or enhance collaboration between health care organizations and social service sectors.

My bill incentivizes states to work with nonprofits and the health care community to develop a strategic plan to integrate these sectors. The partnerships must include both government and local providers to facilitate cross-sector referrals, communication, and service coordination. State partnerships will work to identify goals and be able to articulate a plan to reach them.

Most importantly, states will have maximum flexibility to implement this plan in the most effective way possible. What works in the Lower 48 states often does not work in Alaska, and I am sure that is true of all 50 states. That’s why this bill allows the flexibility for each state to design their own unique and innovative plan with the flexibility to respond to each state’s culture and values. States will also have to submit a plan for long-term financial stability.

Ultimately, the LINC ACT will support a more resilient health and social service system that is better able to respond to health and social challenges rather than adding costly new programs that create red tape and confusion.

This bill will help health care organizations and social service organizations better identify needs and partner on interventions to improve health and quality of life, lower long-term health costs, and strengthen communities. And it will provide data to help policy makers plan for the future to better target resources.

There is nothing more important than health and wellness—yet the government spends far too many funds on programs that don’t contribute to holistic health and wellness for everyone, regardless of zip code or income level. By strategically designing programs to create statewide partnerships, the LINC Act will end siloes, save money, and produce better health outcomes.

• U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; the Armed Services Committee; the Environment and Public Works Committee; and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Prior to his election to the Senate, Sullivan served as Alaska’s Attorney General and Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. He also serves as a Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

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