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Great Health Divide | Community health workers help provide ‘missing link’ in EKY

“They expect us to have the answers that they can’t get from anywhere else,” one CHW said.
Great Health Divide | Community health workers help provide ‘missing link’ in EKY
Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 12:47 PM EST
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BEATTYVILLE, Ky. (WKYT) - From helping someone with their medicine to getting them signed up for the Do Not Call list, being a community health worker has a broad definition.

“We’re not limited to just health care,” said Samantha Bowman, a certified community health worker, or CHW. “Whatever the need is: If you need shoes, we help you find shoes; transportation; dental; the list goes on and on. If there’s something we don’t do on a daily basis, and you need the resources or the guidance, we’d be glad to help.”

On the day that WKYT’s Garrett Wymer visited the Kentucky Homeplace office in Beattyville the chairs inside were empty, but Bowman stayed busy - filling out forms, making calls and answering questions to help her clients.

Bridging the Great Health Divide’ has shown the impact a lack of resources and access to health care can have on communities. But sometimes the resources are there, and people just do not know how to get to them.

[RELATED COVERAGE | Bridging the Great Health Divide]

That is exactly the problem that community health workers - trained lay health workers who can help people get the care, medication, education or other resources they need to stay healthy - are trying to solve.

“You have clients come into your office and they’ve been everywhere and can’t get any help,” Bowman said. “They expect us to have the answers that they can’t get from anywhere else, and speak to them on a level they can understand.”

The pandemic has changed what Bowman’s days are like - she performs fewer home visits now; she’s mailed masks to clients; she’s spent a lot of time encouraging people to get vaccinated - and it has also shown just how important these CHWs are to those who depend on them.

“Really they’re there to fill in the gap where programs don’t exist,” said Mace Baker, director of Kentucky Homeplace.

Kentucky Homeplace is not the only organization with CHWs in the commonwealth. It is, however, the largest and longest-running, officials said. Currently, Kentucky Homeplace has 22 CHWs serving 30 eastern Kentucky counties.

CHWs go through training and are certified by the state Department for Public Health.

“There’s a lot of trust that’s built up, and there’s a lot of experience these community health workers have,” Baker said.

CHWs play a variety of roles like insurance ‘assisters’ and nutrition and health educators. They also help people get the medication - often insulin - they need, or even other necessities like glasses or food boxes.

[RELATED COVERAGE | Managing diabetes and the rising cost of insulin]

“Just little things, little minor things, can help keep people out of the hospital, can help keep them well,” Baker said. “I think that’s where community health workers come in.”

Kentucky Homeplace is funded by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Baker said, and this year the cabinet has expanded its investment, allowing Kentucky Homeplace to hire 10 more CHWs (in addition to the cabinet also placing additional CHWs in other health departments).

Their focus is allowing three to float around as needed, filling in the gaps for health workers covering multiple counties, adding a second CHW for Pike County (the state’s largest in land area) and hiring CHWs for three new counties: McCreary, Montgomery and Whitley.

Studies cite “mounting evidence” that CHWs are effective and versatile tools for improving a community’s health.

In Bowman’s 13 years as a community health worker, she has seen her community’s needs change. Back then, before the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, many clients did not have insurance. Now, she says, most do, but many still cannot afford the deductible, or the medications they need (like insulin) are not covered.

For Bowman, the reason she does this job is personal. Beattyville is her hometown, and her mother even served as a community health worker here for a decade.

“I’ve actually sat on the other side of the desk,” Bowman said. “I came in to visit her one day and I was actually smoking. She talked to me about smoking. Of course, I knew it was bad, I knew I didn’t need to do it. We talked about preventative stuff and she helped me get medication - Chantix - to help me quit.”

Now she is the one serving as a resource to help her neighbors get the resources they need.

“It’s in my blood,” she said, “and I knew I needed to do it, too.”

Contact your community health worker here.

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