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A Room with a View: Arizona Leaders Brainstorm Ways to Empower Health

Emiliano Espino, an Arizona State University (ASU) student and local community health educator, sat nodding his head and smiling through presentation after presentation that truly hit home. As one of 110 guests who attended the UnitedHealthcare Empowering Health Roundtable, Emiliano was surprised that the topic captivating a room full of university professors, health care leaders and social service providers was centered on the very neighborhood in which he grew up, Maryvale.

The event, held Sept. 12 in Phoenix, was designed to bring together healthcare and social service industry experts to discuss the core issues depriving communities of health and wellness – homelessness, financial instability, food insecurity, access to care, transportation and behavioral health. These social determinants of health can undermine any one organization’s ability to keep at-risk populations healthy — and are often key contributors to the high cost of health care.

But, what if, by looking at the problem and solutions in a new way, these organizations could collaborate on models of care that would lead to better health outcomes?

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, senior vice president of Clinical Redesign at UnitedHealthcare, believes it’s not only possible but necessary. Years ago, Brenner was inspired to do more after hearing the story of a homeless woman in New Jersey who had been admitted to the emergency room 450 times in a single year. Instead of offering a basic shelter voucher, health care and community organizations worked together to move her into an apartment that provided her with all the wrap-around social services she needed. It’s a model called “Housing First” and Brenner is a true believer. The following year, that woman went to the hospital just 18 times. The “Housing First” model of care helped to transform her life.

Brenner shared this story, along with many others, at the event.

“The reason I am here today is because the nation’s largest health care company has a role to play – not only in this community but across the country – in addressing things like food, shelter, transportation, safety and other challenges,” Dr. Brenner said. “UnitedHealthcare can be a platform for re-thinking how we approach these problems.”

Earlier this year, UnitedHealthcare surpassed more than $400 million in affordable housing investments for individuals and families in need. One of the most successful examples of this work exists in Emiliano’s hometown. UnitedHealthcare provided the necessary funding for Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) to purchase, renovate and manage 498 affordable housing units in Maryvale. In turn, CPLC set aside 100 units for UnitedHealthcare members who were at risk of homelessness.

Dr. Jonathan Koppell, dean of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU, also spoke at the event and discussed his own team’s efforts to isolate one square mile of Maryvale, identify the social determinants challenging residents there and act as a coalescing force among social service agencies. That work is just getting underway this year.

Emiliano and the dozens of social service and health care leaders at the event were impressed by the efforts and solutions discussed. The bottom line: Lifting up individuals and families who face daily challenges in their health and wellness is vital to the sustainability of our health care system.

UnitedHealthcare plans to host similar roundtables in Memphis and Cleveland later this fall to expand on its Empowering Health commitment to improve health access and address the social determinants of health.