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Guest Commentary

Gary: Your ZIP code may have a bigger impact on your health than your genetic code


When you see your doctor or other healthcare provider, they ask questions about your current and past health status, as well as your family’s medical history.

Knowing whether you or your family have a history of heart disease, diabetes, depression, cancer or other diagnoses helps the provider know how best to proceed with your care.

But healthcare professionals now recognize that there are other, equally important factors to consider when assessing a patient’s health.

Known as social determinants of health, these factors take into consideration such things as where people are born, where they live, their socio-economic status and level of education. Other factors include access to nutritious food, clean air and clean water, and exposure to violence.

With nearly 80% of health outcomes impacted by your ZIP code rather than your genetic code, it is critical to assess, manage and ultimately make changes to these health factors to make a meaningful impact in the health of our communities.

And this recognition has led to successful collaborations in the delivery of integrated physical and behavioral healthcare, especially here in Arizona.

For example, as a contracted health plan with the state of Arizona, Mercy Care collaborated with the state to implement a whole-person care model for Medicaid-eligible individuals living with substance abuse disorder who are also experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

The program is called the Comprehensive Community Health Program.

Working with providers and community partners such as Community Bridges, Inc., EMPACT-La Frontera and the city of Phoenix, eligible individuals can get housing subsidies and other resources that Medicaid doesn’t cover. Involving others in the local behavioral health provider community and other community-based organizations in the planning process led to the development and support of a comprehensive model offering case management, transportation, crisis support, affordable housing subsidies, counseling services, and life skills in addition to substance abuse disorder treatment services. On average, Comprehensive Community Health Program serves 300 people annually since it was launched in 2018.

In 2016, Mercy Care launched a partnership with Activate Food Arizona to bring fresh, healthy food to designated “food deserts” in Maricopa County, via the Farm Express buses. Farm Express buses are mobile farmers’ markets that provide fresh, locally grown produce, at cost, to neighborhoods in Phoenix and Tempe.

Mercy Care continues to provide funding to ensure the buses make 30 stops each week, serving communities whose food options might otherwise be a convenience store or a gas station. This collaboration to help reduce food insecurity as a social determinant of health has served approximately 6,000 people.

And just last year, Mercy Care teamed up with Cloud Covered Streets to fund its annual operations. The program was so successful we extended our support another year. Cloud Covered Streets provides mobile shower, laundry, haircuts, and other basic social services to people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County.

A final example: Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which helps vulnerable older adults in Tempe by addressing barriers that impact their ability to remain independent at home as they grow older. These barriers may include poverty, food insecurity, chronic health issues and mobility limitations, and isolation or loneliness. The program is based on the national “Village” concept, which trains neighbors to be volunteer aides for older adults who lack support networks so they can remain safely in the home and community they love as they age.

It provides resource navigation, home visits, access to nutritious meals and food boxes, Medicaid and SNAP enrollment assistance, transportation, care for pets, light home and yard upkeep, and social support for a growing population of older adults who lack the finances and safety net to live independently. Mercy Care recently announced a grant for this program, which will directly support 150 older adults in Tempe, 30 of whom will receive a Claris Companion Tablet, internet access, and accompanying training by case managers, with the goal to reduce their feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression through connectivity.

Businesses and organizations play important roles in the communities in which they exist and operate and should engage in opportunities to help improve these communities. To address the social determinants of health takes collaboration across many sectors, including working with municipalities, public health agencies, faith-based communities, healthcare and more.

Creating a healthier community is everyone’s responsibility. Social determinants of health may not be experienced equally by all people, yet their impact is felt across generations. Making a commitment to address these important factors is the key to reducing disparities that lead to inequitable health outcomes. The result will be healthier communities and improved quality of life — and that benefits all of us.