On August 28, 2014, the New York Times published, “What Doctors Can’t Do,” an opinion piece about Community Health Workers. Author Tina Rosenberg describes the targeted services, financial savings, and logistical complexities of managing CHW programs. Council Project Coordinator Julia Dobbins oversees the Community Health Worker project funded by a CMMI Innovation grant. She penned a response to the article urging readers to focus not only on the financial benefits of CHWs, but also the unique capabilities and benefits these workers bring to medical care. Her response was published with the original article earlier this week.
Tina Rosenberg’s “What Doctors Can’t Do” gets it right on how lower-cost, up-front investments can bring long-term improvements and savings to our health care system. With ACA funding, 12 Health Care for the Homeless projects across the country have employed CHWs to work exclusively with people who are homeless and frequent emergency rooms. After two years, 16 CHWs are working with over 400 patients—most of them having multiple chronic and acute conditions. CHW programs not only increase employment opportunities for more limited skilled workers, but they save hospitals money by redirecting costly patients to more appropriate primary care. One California patient in our project accumulated over $1 million of hospital charges from 33 emergency room visits in two years, but after working with a CHW, she’s now down to five visits this year and has graduated from the program. Another patient was blind and sleeping at a bus station but the CHW found resources for surgery and now he has housing and restored vision. There are many other success stories behind these modest, wise investments, and while we praise the cost-savings, let’s also celebrate the overwhelming changes that CHWs can make to transform the lives of the most vulnerable.