Not just 'window dressing': What 7 leaders said about payer health equity efforts this year

Payers are investing in health equity in many ways, including improving data collection, access to virtual care and adding health equity experts to C-suites. 

Darrell Gray II, MD, the inaugural chief health equity officer at Elevance Health, told Becker's more organizations, including payers, are adding chief health equity officers, and not just for "window dressing." 

"Companies recognize that there is a business imperative behind doing this work and doing it with intention," Dr. Gray said. "Companies such as ours realize that it is incredibly important to hold all of our associates accountable to the outcomes that we hope to achieve and that we have leadership to help to drive toward that. It's critically important that organizations such as Elevance Health be one band, one sound, marching toward advancing health equity. That's what leadership can do." 

Here's what six more payer executives and equity leaders told Becker's this year. 

Investing in data

Andrew Dreyfus, outgoing CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, told Becker's many of the conversations around health equity are the same as they were almost 20 years ago — so the payer is focused on upping the ante. 

"From our foundation's giving to our health justice programs and the way we invest in and support startups helmed by entrepreneurs of color, we're accelerating and expanding our work on health equity. But perhaps the biggest change will come from a new program that builds on our payment reform advances over the last decade," Mr. Dreyfus said. 

"We're investing in collecting high quality race and ethnicity data on our members, supporting our health systems with $25 million in grants to help them advance their work on health equity. And starting in January, we'll be the first health plan in the country to create payment contracts rewarding clinicians for eliminating racial and ethnic inequities in care, with a goal of improving healthcare for all 2.9 million of our members." 

Andy Bindman, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Kaiser Permanente, told Becker's the payer-provider organization is finding ways to better measure health equity data, and take action when the data shows disparities. 

"Through this work, we're helping to reimagine the long-standing model of how to create accountability around quality and quality improvement, and how to make equity a critical part of how we define quality outcomes moving forward," Dr. Bindman said. 

"We recognize that this represents a shift but an important one for the field," he added. "We hope to bring other health systems, payers, regulators and policymakers along with us on this journey of transformation that most everyone recognizes is overdue."

Connecting with the community 

Pooja Mittal, DO, chief health equity officer at Health Net, told Becker's healthcare starts in the community.

"A lot of our work focuses on developing relationships, both with our members, our providers, and with community-based organizations of all types, including faith-based organizations, county offices, and many other types of organizations so that we can really ensure we're meeting people where they're at in their communities," Dr. Mittal said. "A lot of that work allows us to integrate non-traditional medical providers into our safety net, and allows us to provide more coordinated and equitable access to whole-person care." 

Virtual care can improve equity 

Don Antonucci, CEO of Providence Health Plan, told Becker's health equity is one of the five major trends employers need to be aware of. 

"With virtual care, we saw that significant rise during the pandemic, so there's a place for virtual care that adds to access and quality," Mr. Antonucci said. "With behavioral health and mental health, we've seen the pandemic exacerbate the need for those services and we know there's not enough providers out there today. On health equity, this industry is not equitable today. We must constantly focus on ways, big and small, to drive health equity."

Whole-person care is the future 

Hilary Marden-Resnik, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based UCare, told Becker's health equity involves individual social drivers and population health. 

"One of the biggest trends and challenges ahead that we talk a lot about at UCare is whole-person care. That includes the social drivers like transportation, food delivery, housing, companionship and even snow removal — which is obviously huge in Minnesota," Ms. Marden-Resnik said. 

"We're prioritizing members' access to and utilization of telehealth, which isn't just challenges with finding a provider. We have to make sure people have the devices, bandwidth and knowledge to use the technology. It's all related to personalization and meeting our members where they are by providing meaningful information and services that add value for them." 

Bring in expertise from the outside 

Kelly Bruno-Nelson was named executive director of Medi-Cal and CalAIM at CalOptima, a public health insurance agency in Orange County, Calif., this year. Ms. Bruno-Nelson told Becker's she's a "fish out of water" — before joining CalOptima, she had no insurance experience but brought her expertise from 25 years at healthcare and social organizations. 

"This is a health plan that recognizes that it not only needs to, in a very basic sense, fund community-based organizations — it needs to partner with community-based organizations," Ms. Bruno-Nelson said. "The best way to do that is to bring somebody from the outside in who's actually done the work on the other side. And that is exactly who I am." 

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