Health Care System Accepting New Math: Housing = Health

Stories that caught our attention

Apartment complex with swimming pool on a sunny day
The Residences at Camelback West in Phoenix has 500 rental units ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments, of which 100 are set aside for homeless UnitedHealth Medicaid members. Photo: Tiempo Development & Management

In the course of a single year, a homeless man named Steve in Phoenix, Arizona, visited the emergency room 81 times. Only 54 years old, Steve is coping with a daunting array of medical conditions: multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of his health and reliance on emergency rooms, his medical costs averaged about $13,000 per month that year.Essential Coverage

Thanks to an innovative housing program run by the nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group, Steve no longer sleeps outside — a crucial prerequisite to improved health. He is one of about 60 formerly homeless people covered by Arizona Medicaid who now receive housing and support services in Phoenix, John Tozzi reported for Bloomberg Businessweek. The UnitedHealth housing program, called myConnections, represents the growing recognition across the health care system that improved health cannot be achieved exclusively by traditional clinical models. Getting patients off the streets is often the first — and most important — step to helping them heal, physically and mentally.

“Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care. . . . [The US system] is not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place. —John Tozzi, Bloomberg News

“Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care,” Tozzi explained. “The US system is engineered to route billions of dollars to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and labs to diagnose and treat patients once they’re sick. It’s not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place.”

MyConnections was the brainchild of a partnership between UnitedHealthcare (a division of UnitedHealth) and the Camden Coalition, a New Jersey–based nonprofit dedicated to improving care for people with complex health and social needs. The partnership was established in 2017 at the same time Jeffrey Brenner, MD, founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition, announced he was leaving the nonprofit to lead myConnections. He is now UnitedHealthcare’s senior vice president for integrated health and human services. UnitedHealthcare provides managed care to about six million people nationwide, according to company filings. It does not get reimbursed by Medicaid for housing assistance.

Making the Case for Addressing Social Determinants

Brenner hopes myConnections will show that both a health care and a business case can be made for investing in a Housing First (PDF) model. Tozzi reported that UnitedHealth “aims to reduce expenses not by denying care, but by spending more on social interventions, starting with housing.”

At the Residences at Camelback West, a Phoenix apartment complex of 500 apartments ranging from studios to two-bedroom units, up to 100 apartments are set aside for UnitedHealth Medicaid members enrolled in myConnections. The rest of the units are rented out at market rates. Five health coaches use an on-site office to serve as case managers and counselors for the myConnections residents. The coaches make sure that their clients remember medical appointments, and arrange transportation for them and sometimes accompany them to the doctor.

Since receiving housing and health coaching from Brenner’s team, Steve’s average monthly medical costs have dropped from $12,945 to $2,073. An analysis of the first 41 participants in Phoenix shows that “housing and support services proved cost effective for the 25 most expensive patients, reducing their overall costs dramatically,” Tozzi reported. But total spending for the other 16 increased, highlighting the complexity of this work.

“The return’s only going to work out if we target the right people,” Brenner told Tozzi. The myConnections team selects patients who are enrolled in UnitedHealth, are homeless, and who have annual medical spending greater than $50,000 mostly because of ER visits and inpatient stays. Those high-cost patients are UnitedHealth’s best bet for recovering the cost of its housing investment.

UnitedHealth is starting with 10 subsidized apartments in each new city where it’s introducing the program, including in places where there might be hundreds of homeless Medicaid members on its rolls, Tozzi reported. MyConnections will be in 30 markets by early 2020.

Kaiser Addresses Homelessness in Its Backyard

In its home base of Oakland, California, health system Kaiser Permanente has invested $200 million in an affordable housing project, Hannah Norman reported in the San Francisco Business Times. Its help is not targeted exclusively at Kaiser members, instead aiming to benefit any residents who live in communities it serves.

The initiative was championed by Bernard Tyson, the late chairman and CEO of Kaiser, who died unexpectedly this month. In a New York Times remembrance, Reed Abelson noted that Tyson was committed to addressing social determinants of health in the places where Kaiser operates. “He had the organization examine broad issues like housing shortages, food insecurity, and gun violence and their impact on health and well-being,” Abelson wrote.

Tyson, who was the health system’s first Black chief executive, served as chair of the Bay Area Council, a business association dedicated to economic development in the San Francisco region. His chairmanship culminated in a major report (PDF) that documented the severity of the homelessness crisis and recommended ways to address it, Norman reported.

“We don’t believe as a mega-health system that our only lane is medical care,” Tyson said in April. “It’s a critical lane, but it’s not our only lane.”

Steady Rents in Buildings with Seismic Upgrades

Kaiser announced its $200 million housing initiative, the Thriving Communities Fund, in January. Since then, it partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing, and the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation to invest a total of $8.7 million ($5.2 million from Kaiser) in Kensington Gardens, a 41-apartment building in East Oakland. “The trio of organizations plans to keep the residents in place and the rent steady at $1,597 per month for a studio and $2,250 for a two-bedroom,” Norman wrote. “Some residents receive federal housing benefits, including Section 8, to help cover the cost.”

The Kensington Gardens purchase is part of the Thriving Communities Fund’s strategy to keep rents steady and to make health and safety upgrades such as seismic upgrades and new roofs.

Kaiser’s Built for Zero initiative committed $3 million over three years to a data-driven, county-level approach to understanding the dynamics of homelessness. Built for Zero tracks the homeless population in a county from month to month to understand “who they are, what they need, and even how many of them are repeatedly visiting emergency rooms,” Norman reported. Fifteen Kaiser communities, including eight in California, are participating in the program.

Do you think the health care system is doing enough to address homelessness? Tweet at me with #EssentialCoverage or email me.