Saturday, 19 May 2018

San Francisco Business Times/Kevin Truong: Kaiser Permanente commits $200 million to fight homelessness and support affordable housing

San Francisco Business Times
Health Care
Kaiser Permanente commits $200 million to fight homelessness and support affordable housing (video)

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By Kevin Truong  – Multimedia producer, San Francisco Business Times
May 18, 2018, 12:47pm PDT Updated May 18, 2018, 3:10pm PDT

Kaiser Permanente has pledged up to $200 million to fight homelessness and support affordable housing in one of the biggest individual financial commitments on the issue from a private enterprise.

While it’s currently unclear what exact programs will be funded using the money, Kaiser’s Chief Community Health Officer Bechara Choucair said the goal is to partner with local communities and community groups to help support existing solutions that are working to preserve and expand affordable housing. Kaiser’s financial commitment – officially called the Thriving Communities Fund – is based on the strategy of impact investing, the concept of creating a financial return alongside some measurable social benefit. 

“We’ve had the same mission for 70-plus years, which is improving the health of our members and the communities where we’re active.” Choucair said. “At the same time, we need to be thinking about how the health of our members goes beyond the four walls of the hospital into what happens in the community.”

Kaiser CEO and Chairman Bernard Tyson spoke about the investment as part of the company’s focus on “total health,” essentially caring for the entire person.

“When we think about health care in the 21st century, the whole idea of waiting to get sick is really not the way forward,” Tyson said. “One of the plaguing health problems in the community is housing and shelter.”

Housing security has become a growing concern locally as housing prices continue to climb along with homelessness rates. Nationwide, homelessness is estimated to affect 550,000 people mainly in urban centers.

“The good news is that in California and across the country we have a thriving economy. The bad news is that home prices continue to skyrocket and there are many Americans that can't afford rent and house payments,” Tyson said. “With all the wealth in this country, we don’t have to accept homelessness as a reality in the 21st century.”

In Kaiser Permanente's own hometown of Oakland, homelessness rates increased 25 percent from 2015 to 2017 and encampments now stretch along major thoroughfares.

Tyson spoke about visiting those homelessness encampments and seeing the scale of the issue first-hand.

“Up close you start to see it's a complicated problem, but a solvable one. Maybe they lost their job, had a major traumatic experience or have mental challenges," he said. "It's a variety of issues that lead to homelessness, so no solution can be one-size fits all.”

Of course, the rising costs of medical care is a significant factor in homelessness, with a Nerdwallet report estimating that 57.1 percent of personal bankruptcies could be attributed to medical costs.

“What we see obviously in front of us is hundreds of thousands of people that are homeless. What we don’t see is that 25 to 40 percent of people who are one payment or one paycheck away from that, so affordability of care is a critical problem for us to solve,” Tyson said.

As part of its effort, Kaiser, the nation’s largest managed care consortium, has also joined mayors and CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, a bipartisan coalition of local government and business leaders working on scaling federal programs supporting affordable housing. The members of the coalition include Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Airbnb and Sutter Health.

Possible areas of focus include promoting affordable housing as part of infrastructure investment, growing Community Development Block Grants and the expansion of housing voucher programs, Choucair said. 

In explaining the direct connection between housing security and health, Choucair, who trained as a family physician and has worked extensively with homeless populations, related a story from last week’s National Health Care for the Homeless Conference where he ran into a formerly homeless patient who was helping out at the event.

“For him to be able to pay it back to support other people’s experience just meant the world to me. I saw him smiling, and I don’t remember ever seeing him smile when I was working with him,” Choucair said.

“He said 'all this work that you did for me meant the world to me,' and I told him that this experience meant the world to me. It just reminds you at the end of the day there are individual people that we can help and that are affected by what we’re doing.”
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