CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield advances health equity by addressing ‘social drivers of health’

This content is sponsored by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Social drivers of health, otherwise known as social determinants of health, are factors that significantly influence a person’s health and well-being, including a range of inte­rconnected social and economic issues that shape health outcomes and disparities within communities.

Using the term “social driver” is a recognition that social structures, cultural norms and economic conditions can profoundly impact someone’s ability to lead a healthy life.

“We’re shifting to drivers because determinant feels imminent,” said Kimberly Harris, the director of community health and social impact at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst). “There are societal and environmental factors that we can adjust as we do interventions.”

These factors such as income, education, employment, housing and social support networks collectively contribute to health outcomes.

“They are basically the non-clinical factors that impact overall health,” said Harris.

CareFirst is the largest not-for-profit health plan in the mid-Atlantic region, and Harris oversees its charitable contributions program addressing the social drivers of health.

“We are data-driven,” Harris said. “In Prince George’s County, for example, health literacy, increased access to healthy foods and food insecurity are high on the list there.”

In D.C., factors that are high on the list of social drivers impacting health outcomes include access to primary care providers and homelessness.

“Those are some of the things that we’re working to address in the region,” Harris said.

Overcoming health obstacles

Health equity and racial disparities can significantly impact the health and wellness of communities.

While health equity refers to the fair distribution of health resources, opportunities, and outcomes, racial disparities highlight the differences in health experiences among various racial and ethnic groups.

Minority communities face higher rates of chronic diseases, shorter life expectancies and limited access to quality healthcare.

“That is something that is sort of a moving target,” Harris said. “You can’t put your finger on it every time.”

Socioeconomic factors play a crucial role in health equity, as minority communities often experience higher poverty rates, limited access to educational opportunities and employment challenges.

Such economic disparities directly impact access to healthcare services, nutritious food and safe living environments.

“We have health equity as a strategy for all of the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield plans,” Harris said. “We’re looking at factors such as maternal health, diabetes and cardiovascular disease to really be intentional about the work that we’re doing when we see high disparities in certain areas.”

By recognizing and addressing disparities, communities can work toward fostering a more inclusive healthcare system that promotes the well-being of everyone who lives there.

Investing in the community

CareFirst invests millions of dollars throughout the D.C. region in an effort to improve overall health and increase the accessibility, affordability, safety and quality of healthcare.

In 2022, the company awarded nearly $8 million in grants to 19 community-based organizations in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia in order to add money and resources to support behavioral health.

Read more: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield invests in behavioral health, distributes nearly $8 million in grants – WTOP News

“I’m very excited about the behavioral health grants, especially as it relates to our health equity strategy,” Harris said.

The grants were largely designed to increase access to services for youth.

“The demand for behavioral health services has increased significantly, especially since the pandemic,” Harris explained. “We have a partnership with ‘SMYAL’ in D.C. that works with LGBTQ youth, providing peer-to-peer support.”

Younger generations in the LGBTQ community report higher levels of discrimination than older generations, and they continue to face negative educational, employment and health inequities when compared to their peers.

“Through youth leadership, SMYAL creates opportunities for LGBTQ youth to build self-confidence, develop critical life skills and engage their peers and community through service and advocacy,” according to SMYAL’s website.

It is just one in a long line of partnerships CareFirst has formed over the years with organizations that are embedded in the community.

Read more: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield reduces barriers to healthcare with untraditional investments, partners – WTOP News

“We are better together,” Harris said. “We all come to the table with a different lens and are able to provide a comprehensive approach to address some of the most critical needs in the region, and I don’t think that we could do it alone.”

New year, new challenges

For 2024, CareFirst is rolling out numerous initiatives, including a focus on housing.

“We’re providing funding to do refurbishment of affordable housing, but we’re also looking at ending homelessness,” Harris said. “There are different levels with an eye toward supporting housing.”

Through community forums, CareFirst had heard directly from residents who have lived experiences.

One woman in particular explained how she had been homeless for 17 years, but was able to turn her life around after a D.C. organization gave her an opportunity to find housing.

“She ended up getting a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and now she’s doing peer support to help other homeless residents,” Harris said. “Those are things that are daunting and may seem impossible, but we cannot stop trying.”

CareFirst encourages anyone looking to work with their organization to explore for more information.

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