Millie Landock, Lead Community Health Worker at Project Access New Haven, talks to a client on the phone while doing outreach to connect residents to health providers and social services. Cloe Poisson / C-HIT.ORG

What happens when you need a refill for a prescription? You call your doctor, wait for it to be sent to the pharmacy, and once it’s ready, you go and pick it up. Sometimes, there are hiccups. Maybe you have to call your health insurance company to dispute a charge, or the pharmacy filled the wrong prescription – still, miraculously, you finish the day or week with a prescription in hand.

For some of us, this is our routine. However, for many residents across Connecticut, this is far from reality.

Ayesha Clarke

What happens when you have no reliable transportation to get to the pharmacy or a physician to write the prescription? Or when you don’t have the cash to afford your co-pay, or the means to maintain a specific diet for a certain condition, or a stable living situation to keep track of your medications?

Whom do you call?

As a Connecticut native, who has spent my career making sure the voices of all Connecticut residents are heard as a former Chairperson of the Hartford Board of Education, I have heard stories of small challenges causing big consequences too often. A child falling asleep in class? They spent all night walking a parent through complicated social service applications. A parent late to pick up their child from an afterschool program? They spent all day looking for a second job to cover the cost of their prescriptions.

When our systems fail adults, children pay the price.

In circumstances like these, a trusted resource can mean all the difference. April 2 – 8  marks Connecticut’s fifth annual Health Equity Week. This statewide event creates opportunities for conversation, learning, and sharing ideas to advance health equity throughout Connecticut.

This year, Health Equity Solutions and our partners will spend the week celebrating community health workers.  Community health workers play a key role in advancing health equity by helping people navigate our increasingly complex health systems and adapt medical advice to their circumstances. They facilitate interactions between patients, the health care system, and social and economic services. For example, community health workers can help people: make appointments; understand their health insurance benefits; support people so they can complete paperwork for social and economic services; find resources; and communicate effectively with doctors, pharmacists, dentists, and other health care providers.

While these may sound like small things, they are often the difference between being able to control asthma or diabetes and repeatedly ending up in the emergency room. Community health workers help to fill the unmet needs of patients who fall into the (all-too-wide) cracks of our health system and social safety net.

COVID-19 highlighted these gaps AND the urgent need to reduce the strain on our health care system and providers. Community health workers address the non-clinical health needs that nurses, physicians, and other providers rarely have the time or lived experience to tackle.

Community health workers are the glue in ensuring people can get the care and services they need to be healthy.

Community health workers have are a proven, cost-effective means to improve health outcomes, quality, and overall patient experience while reducing health disparities. Yet their work is not sustainably funded in our state. Most Community health worker programs are grant funded, which means funding is often unpredictable and communities may not have consistent access to CHWs when they are most needed. Once the funding from a grant disappears, so does the community health worker.

Twenty-five states have already implemented Medicaid reimbursement for community health workers. Connecticut must do the same. More than 100 community health workers and allies in Connecticut worked together throughout 2022 to discuss how Medicaid reimbursement could be structured to sustainably facilitate their full scope of work.

The principles outlined in S.B. 991 and S.B. 10 were designed and developed by community health workers across the state and represent a shared vision for advancing health equity in Connecticut.

Connecticut is my home (I was born and raised in Hartford) and a place where I have rich memories. When the pandemic erupted in our neighborhoods, I too, experienced the closure of schools and businesses, the shortages in supplies, and the disparate rise in cases and deaths. At the same time, our health systems were overwhelmed, and I saw community health workers navigating the challenges, breaking down barriers, and connecting people with the resources and information they needed to stay or get healthy.

Moving toward health equity means creating a new norm, including community health workers, so we are prepared to combat the inequities in health that predate the COVID-19 pandemic and were exacerbated by it. Community health workers build trust and break down the barriers to health that disproportionately impact Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, and other people of color in our state.

Let’s work together this Health Equity Week to make Connecticut the 26th state that recognizes this through Medicaid reimbursement.

Ayesha Clarke, MSW, MPH is the Interim Executive Director of Health Equity Solutions.