Using community input to improve community health
To gain a deeper, data-based understanding of Rhode Islanders’ health, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI) partnered with the Brown University School of Public Health last fall to launch the Rhode Island Life Index. More than 2,200 residents, both urban and rural, were surveyed to better determine key social factors that may be impeding health. Looking at access to health care, transportation, food, housing, employment, broadband internet, as well as factors such as risk of incarceration and personal safety, the Index provides public health data that pinpoints areas of need within the state of about one million residents.
“Our vision to passionately lead a state of health and well-being across Rhode Island was the impetus for creating the RI Life Index,” said Kim Keck,* president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. “Surveying Rhode Islanders revealed their perceived barriers to overall health and well-being, highlighting that where you are born and live has a profound impact on your life. The data we collected is catalyzing efforts by Blue Cross and partner organizations to improve health and well-being in every community across the state.”
Key Finding: Unstable and unaffordable housing is a major barrier for healthy living
Rhode Islanders from all walks of life, including those residing in communities without large populations living in poverty, identified housing and struggling to maintain adequate housing as a key factor in their health.
Poor quality, unaffordable, and unstable housing often leads to negative health outcomes and has been linked to a number of physical and behavioral health issues such as exacerbated asthma, high blood pressure, increased risk of depression, developmental risks in children and increased risk of infectious disease.
“Knowing that residents across the state, including rural, suburban and urban communities, perceived housing as one of the biggest impairments to leading a healthy life has already shaped the way we respond to and support our communities,” added Keck.
Taking action at the intersection of housing and health
The key findings led to BCBSRI investing nearly $800,000 in organizations working at the intersection of housing and health through the BlueAngel Community Health Grant program. This includes more than $200,000 in grants to organizations that provide education and advocacy and inform public policy around affordable housing. The grants also focused on directly helping those experiencing homelessness.
The initial survey results in 2019 also led BCBSRI to convene the RI Life Index Coalition, whose members—leaders of non-profit organizations statewide—are shaping the next steps in the RI Life Index journey, helping to animate and activate the index and providing thought leadership on viable solutions to the challenges identified in the survey.
Inaugural survey data, which is serving as the baseline against which future surveys will be measured, also identified a number of perceived strengths across the state, including availability of safe and reliable transportation, access to affordable and nutritious food and quality services and social supports for seniors. Respondents also identified programs and services for children as a strength.
“Knowing that residents across the state, including rural, suburban and urban communities, perceived housing as one of the biggest impairments to leading a healthy life has already shaped the way we respond to and support our communities.”
Next Steps: Increasing data collection
While BCBSRI will continue to support improved housing, the company kicked off the second round of the survey in July, expanding the data collection to issues related to health inequities faced by communities of color.
“These are longstanding issues that unfortunately cannot be solved overnight,” said Keck. “But identifying, drawing attention to and supporting organizations that are actively addressing their root cause is an important first step.”
* At the time of publication, Kim Keck was the BCBS Rhode Island CEO, but now serves as president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Associaiton.