Community health workers reflect on an expanded role during COVID at conference in Normal
The work of community health workers often goes unnoticed, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that.
They were on the front lines of the health care system, serving as liaisons to help people get the care they need, whether that was COVID testing, or administering vaccines, treatment or addressing other health outcomes that disproportionately impacted those most in need.
“They were actually helping other health care workers who were getting that pushback, the community health workers were on the other side trying to address those concerns and questions and bring information to the community,” said Tracey Smith, director of Community Health at the Illinois Public Health Association (IPHA).
Smith said the skills of community health workers were widely underutilized before the pandemic and now she sees opportunity for that sector of the health care system to grow.
“Our biggest challenge has been in our state and our nation is a payment model for community health workers,” Smith said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.
The IPHA hosted its annual Community Health Worker Summit Wednesday and Thursday in Normal, its first large formal gathering since the pandemic.
The state of Illinois is working on a plan to certify community health workers. Smith said that will provide stability to a critical part of the health care system.
Smith said Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and health care organizations are developing a certification, following the 2021 passage of the Illinois Health Care and Human Services Reform Act. Smith said then they will establish a funding model to include public and private insurance.
“It will allow for the continued expansion of the community health worker workforce, which then will help to fill some of the gaps we are seeing in healthcare services across the state,” she said.
The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) has been tasked with developing a list of services eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for community health workers, but that’s subject to budget appropriation.
Smith said community health workers help people navigate a complex health care system. She said many of those jobs are currently funded by public and private grants.
Community health workers say building trust is often the most critical part to getting people the care they need.
Coretta Jackson is a health care navigator with Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington. She works mostly with homeless shelter clients. Jackson tells clients she can relate to the challenges they face.
“Just to let them know I know what it’s like to get over these barriers, but I also know enough that I can guide them and not make it seem so paternalistic,” she said said.
The IHPA has received state and federal funding to address ongoing health disparities in several areas, including the early detection of Alzheimer's disease among vulnerable populations, access to HIV and AIDS screenings and treatments, and preventive MPox resources in rural communities.