Op-Ed: Regional Health Hubs, Piecing Together the Healthcare Puzzle

Gregory Paulson | May 16, 2019 | Opinion
State legislators should formally recognize, and maintain the budget appropriation for, key ‘regional health hubs’

Gregory Paulson
Our healthcare system is fragmented. Hospitals and doctors try to provide the best care for patients; community organizations provide food, shelter, and social supports for clients. Residents try to support their families and neighbors. A lot of effort. Some success. Too often, frustration and failure.

How can we provide a better patient experience, improve outcomes, and reduce costs?

An innovative project to do just that is underway. Efforts begun in 2011 under New Jersey’s Medicaid ACO Demonstration Project have evolved into four regional partnerships that integrate, coordinate, and align disconnected programs aimed at making communities healthier. ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations) serve residents receiving healthcare coverage through Medicaid — those who often lack access to the resources needed to be, and stay, healthy.

Today, we call on policymakers to make health and well-being a priority as they finalize the state budget for fiscal year 2020. New Jersey’s regional partnerships — Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Healthy Greater Newark, Health Coalition of Passaic County, and Trenton Health Team — are making a real difference in the lives of low-income residents while reducing healthcare expenses for taxpayers. In fact, New Jersey is rapidly becoming a national model for how communities can come together to tackle our shared health challenges.

Legislators should build upon this success by formally recognizing our partnerships as regional health hubs and maintaining the existing $1.5 million appropriation. This would enable New Jersey to leverage a one-for-one federal funding match supporting streamlined healthcare in participating communities and provide models for other regions across the state.

Health hubs provide community-based structures for convening stakeholders, planning and providing health interventions. We maintain a regional view of our communities, while supporting the health of each individual in that community. Working collaboratively, we have formed a network focused on improving well-being throughout the state.

Securely sharing healthcare data

One of our most innovative and important roles is securely sharing healthcare data through regional Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) to help care providers better understand and meet patient needs. In Trenton, our HIE has grown to include more than 1,000 doctors, nurses, clinic and hospital staff who can access millions of records for more than 600,000 patients in real time. This means an emergency-room doctor can quickly access an accurate medical history rather than relying on a patient or family member’s memory.

We also share data among regional partnerships. The Trenton HIE, one of the original six in New Jersey, is integrated with the Camden HIE; and the Newark HIE recently adopted the same data platform. This allows us to securely share protected health information, enabling providers and patients to make evidence-based health decisions with confidence, decisions that are no longer limited to just healthcare.

These sophisticated data systems enable us to address social determinants of health — causes of health problems that are not medical. Now, doctors can make referrals directly to food pantries, legal services, faith communities and other social services in hope of mitigating conditions contributing to health concerns.

Regional health hubs also provide an efficient and effective way to connect community voices and expertise to the New Jersey departments of health and human services. We are nimble enough to respond quickly when needed, to help raise awareness and share important public health messages.

Over the past year, we have worked with our partners to address inequities in maternal health outcomes, access to cancer screening and treatment, challenges in access to healthy food, connections between healthcare and the faith community, youth tobacco-use prevention, school attendance, improvements to the built environment, and more.

Our regional partnerships are helping patients and saving taxpayers money. Designating us as “Regional Health Hubs” and maintaining the current level of funding is a necessary step to provide vital, coordinated, and cost-effective assistance to vulnerable residents and a step forward for New Jersey’s serving as a national role model in health innovation.