Experts: Solving health care inequities takes shift in culture

Cris Collingwood//August 22, 2023

The male hand with scissors cuts word Equality from Inequality

Experts: Solving health care inequities takes shift in culture

Cris Collingwood//August 22, 2023

Navigating today’s health system can be difficult, especially for those who face cultural, religious or diversity barriers.  

“I encourage you to use your voice,” said Andrea Flowers, Director of Operations and Programs at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers (PACHC), during the Lehigh Valley Business 2023 Health Care Summit held Tuesday. 

Flowers, who served as keynote speaker, outlined issues facing community health centers across the state which serve one million patients in urban to rural areas. 

Some centers treat specialized populations such as migrants, LGBTQ communities and the homeless. What makes them work, she said, is they look at what the patients need and meet them where they are. 

“There are three building blocks to success,” Flowers said. “They are respect, trust and consistency.” 

It is through the building blocks that the health care center staff can build relationships with their patients and provide for their needs. Flowers said often they provide more than health care, offering help with insurance, billing, and scheduling.  

“The cornerstone is to gain their trust,” Flowers said. “The staff meets the patients where they are by offering mobile units, in home visits, school-based health clinics and health care fairs.” 

Those offerings help assist patients who may not have transportation, childcare or the ability to take off work when they need to see a doctor, she said. 

“These centers are in communities and build partnerships and connections to provide consistent care,” Flowers said. 

During the virtual summit, health care providers heard from panels about health care’s role in empowering women in the workplace and proactive care and the behavioral health crisis. 

Empowering Women 

“We are in unprecedented times,” said Jodi Woleslagle, senior vice president of Human Resources for Capital Blue Cross. 

“There are 100,000 baby boomers retiring every day and the generation behind them is much smaller,” Woleslagle said, explaining the workforce shortage.  

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Woleslagle said the silver lining is those not in patient care could work from home, which created a new way of looking at the work-homelife balance.  

“It forces companies to take a hard look at what employees want,” she said. 

To that end, employers are offering more flexible work schedules, more time off and benefits that focus on the whole person. 

With that is expanded maternity leave and care. Woleslagle said it used to be that women would get six weeks of unpaid leave after childbirth. Now, not only are women getting paid time off, but partners are eligible too in some companies. 

Dr. Kimberly Legg Corba, owner of Green Hills Direct Family Care, said what she can show women is they can be a small business owner, mother and wife and balance it all.  

“Women shouldn’t have to make a sacrifice” to have a family and a business, she said.  

Mary Terp, associate vice president of Human Resources, United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley (UWGLV), said when employers set up a culture where women don’t have to worry about their homelife, they can focus on what needs to be done. 

“Leadership training is important to create a shift in culture supporting all employees,” Woleslagle said. “That has to start from the top down.” 

When companies create a culture of wellness and a better balance between work and home there are less penalties for dealing with family obligations, Terp said. 

“In human resources we look at best practices,” she said. “When women leave the workforce, they often sideline themselves and then have to catch up when the reenter. We have to look at ways to get them back quickly as they return.” 

Terp said that can be done through counseling and education to get them up to speed, which is important in today’s economy where employers are having a hard time finding and retaining workers. 

“Companies that focus on health and wellness see increased productivity, engagement and wellness. They can even see an increase in profitability,” Woleslagle said. 

Terp said employers can start that journey by getting regular feedback from employees, define clear expectations and educate workers on underutilized benefits like employee assistance programs. 

“Find out what employees care about and think outside the box,” Woleslagle said. “As for the employees, they need to advocate for themselves. If you need it, others probably do too.” 

Speaking to women, Corba said, “Make sure you get the care you need and use your benefits. The more you connect with your provider, the more they listen and the better the outcome will be.” 

Behavioral Health 

The panel speaking to behavioral health agreed.  

Demetrios Marousis, director of Behavioral Health for Highmark, said companies need to support the use of available benefits because mental health issues and substance abuse add to the cost of health care when not addressed.  

Amanda Marie Green, director of operations for Lehigh Valley Business Coalition on Healthcare, said employers need to reset the discussion and promote positive mental health.  

“We are in the middle of a national mental health crisis with substance abuse, anxiety and depression,” she said. “People can’t get treatment and when there are access issues, it comes back to human relations and the benefits people.” 

Green said the result of untreated behavioral health issues create lost productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism.  

“Work is a stressor for people and when you add the pandemic and the economy, more people are taking FMLA (family leave),” she said.  

Robert Scheffler, vice president of Pennsylvania Residential, Education and Hospital Programs for KidsPeace, said the major issue is “staffing, staffing, staffing.” 

“Engagement is more important than ever,” he said. “You can’t have people in crisis dealing with people in crisis.” 

Scheffler said to combat behavioral health issues, employers need to reach beyond the norm and create new ways of engagement. He cited help with housing, transportation, childcare and food issues.  

“That used to be an employee issue, but now we know we need to work together to solve problems.” 

One way to do that, according to Marousis, is to help employees find the right care.  

“As a payor, we have a mental health network of 32,000 providers,” he said. “Often, when someone reports an issue, they look for a psychiatrist when they can see a counselor. We need to educate our membership.” 

Marousis said data shows that on average, an individual is systematic for eight years before seeking care.  

“They shrug it off due to the stigma or the shame in asking for help. Employers need to promote their mental health benefits,” he said. 

“Insurers are advocates and can direct people to the right care,” Green said. “Wellness initiatives can be offered for preventative care.” 

Scheffler agreed, adding employee assistance programs are a great way to help. 

“What used to be seen as fluff amenities are now important,” he said.