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Illinois pandemic health navigators plan for future of community health care

A sign for the Illinois pandemic health navigator program outside the Phoenix Center in...
A sign for the Illinois pandemic health navigator program outside the Phoenix Center in Springfield.(Mike Miletich)
Published: May. 18, 2022 at 5:13 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Illinois has a special network of health care workers who have helped people in 92 counties throughout the pandemic, but the funding for these pandemic health navigators will run out on June 30.

More than 650 people across Illinois stepped up to become community health workers since March of 2021. While funding might run out for the pandemic assistance, many of those workers want to continue their service.

“Our goal is to make sure that there are educated community health workers within all of the different regions, especially to fill those health care gaps that do exist,” said Dr. Tracey Smith, the community health director for the Illinois Public Health Association.

Dr. Smith led the effort to start the pandemic health navigators program in early 2021. The community health workers helped people get tested for COVID-19 and sign up for vaccine appointments. Smith said these workers can also lead people to the closest health care provider or get them set up for telehealth services in health care deserts.

While the state moves to a new phase of this pandemic, navigators will shift their focus to helping people with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension while stressing the importance of going to see a doctor.

“We know that has been a difficult thing for many individuals to stay engaged or get those appointments or their providers have left during the last two years and they need to make those new connections,” Smith said.

Still, people in every community are struggling with a lack of housing and food or unpaid rent and utility bills. Navigators stepped up for those social services too.

The Phoenix Center in Springfield helps the LGBTQ community, the homeless, and people who use drugs.

“Sometimes for people, it’s scary to go to the hospital,” said Sarah Bowen-Lasisi, the Phoenix Center’s assistant director. “It’s scary to explain ‘I’m a transgender person.’ It’s scary to explain ‘I’m unhoused’ or ‘I’m using.’”

Bowen-Lasisi says trust is key to creating strong relationships between community health workers and people in need of help. Diversity was also key to employing people for the navigator program, and some have been lucky to be hired full-time. Two of the three navigators hired by the Phoenix Center had never worked in health care or harm reduction before the pandemic.

“That exposure made both of those people understand for themselves that moving forward that’s the kind of work that they wanted to do,” Bowen-Lasisi explained. “So, they are very grateful to be able to continue to do that work.”

While this program’s $54.5 million federal grant will run out next month, Dr. Smith says the state is trying to allocate additional funding to support key components that the doctor believes should continue post-pandemic. The Illinois Public Health Association hopes to keep at least half of the community health workers beyond June 30.

“We’re working very closely with all of our sites to make sure that they have a plan for post-pandemic funding,” Smith said. “A lot of those sites have been able to partner with hospitals to be able to use some other federal funding through federally qualified health care centers. We’ve been able to train some of the community health workers so they’re not just a pandemic response group, but they can also respond to some of those other wellness needs.”

The Biden administration has also highlighted the importance of community health workers as part of new public health initiatives. Health care experts and advocates hope the United States can follow the lead of countries like Costa Rica and Brazil that prioritized community health workers. Bowen-Lasisi says she would love to see Illinois lead that charge in a few years.

“When government agencies go to help people in those countries they know that they need people who are local to help them and help navigate because it’s a trust factor,” Bowen-Lasisi said. “If you have community-based organizations that are doing the work in the community already and they have this established trust with their clientele, having community health workers to expand the roles in those community-based organizations or FQHCs is only going to make that experience better.”

If you or someone you know needs help from a community health worker, go to helpguidethrive.org.

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