Community Plan of Wisconsin CEO Discusses Health Equity Efforts in Wisconsin

Health equity can be influenced by a number of factors, but 80% of what determines a person’s health has nothing to do with clinical care. Economic and social factors such as affordable housing, nutritious food and reliable transportation play an important role in a person’s overall well-being.

Depending on where one lives in the city of Milwaukee, life expectancy can fluctuate up to 12 years.

In order to address these glaring inequities, Wisconsin health care professionals are working to generate answers that go beyond the doctor’s office.

Ellen Sexton, CEO of the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Wisconsin, is using her knowledge in health care to oversee implementation of public health initiatives that address the social determinants of health.

At a recent panel discussion focused on these health disparities, Sexton joined leaders from the nonprofit and local government sectors to discuss creative solutions.

“Wisconsin is one of the most innovative and collaborative states when it comes to health care,” said Tim Stumm, founding editor of Wisconsin Health News and panel moderator.  

The discussion hit on topics including access to care, technology and housing — the latter of which was singled out by the panelists as the most pressing health equity issue currently facing the state.

Sexton emphasized housing solutions as a means to improve public health. On this front, UnitedHealthcare has been particularly active in Wisconsin, investing $11.7 million in developments throughout Milwaukee and Madison over the past two years. Nationally, UnitedHealthcare has invested more than $400 million in affordable housing developments across 18 states since 2011.

Additionally, UnitedHealthcare has made housing a key component of myConnections.  The pilot program is designed to serve its most challenging Medicaid members, providing stable housing for individuals facing chronic health concerns, in addition to being homeless. Introduced in Milwaukee and in other cities across the country, the program covers rent and provides wrap-around health and social services aimed at helping individuals attain a level of stability.  The hope is that will help them better manage their own health.

“The stress that poverty or unstable housing causes, the raised cortisol levels — that is impacting people’s health,” Sexton said.

Fellow panelist Dr. Leonard Egede, director of the Center for Advancing Population Science at the Medical College of Wisconsin, agreed with Sexton. He indicated the underlying result of inequities rooted in unstable housing, lack of transportation or racism is chronic stress, which often begets more health issues.

In addition to investing in affordable housing developments, UnitedHealthcare provided a grant to help fund a mobile dental clinic for kids from low-income families attending Milwaukee-area schools.  The funding also helped with the implementation of large refrigeration units at food pantries around Wisconsin, allowing greater access to fresh produce.

Sexton also offered perspective on the role of technology in health care, emphasizing that while innovative technology can certainly help individuals and families better manage their health, those who lack access to such technology or simply don’t understand how to use it, are significantly disadvantaged

“There isn’t 5G technology everywhere, and there are different levels of access to that technology,” said Sexton. “We have to make sure we aren’t leaving people behind.”

While there is not one easy answer to addressing the challenges of existing health disparities, coordinated efforts of those in the private, nonprofit and public sectors will help pave the way toward better health for all. Sexton stressed that it will be an out-of-the-box approach and a willingness to innovate that will yield better solutions.

“We have to keep thinking about how we can do something differently to make it work,” she said. “From our positions, we see the entire system and the disparities our people face, and we need to be louder and more innovative to address these issues.”