Health advocates have launched a three-year mission to help 10,000 Wyandotte County residents improve their health care and live healthier lives.
Seven community health workers, on the job since April, so far have helped dozens of people get prescription medications, find affordable primary care physicians and sign up for health insurance. The workers have taken some clients to doctor’s appointments, held their hands during visits to oncologists and connected them with transportation, food stamps, housing assistance and other programs.
Organizers hope the initiative, funded by a $1.9 million grant announced Wednesday, will help improve the overall health of Wyandotte County, which routinely ranks as one of the worst in Kansas on health measures.
Since the Affordable Care Act took effect two years ago, the percentage of uninsured Wyandotte County residents has fallen from 26 percent to 18 percent, Mayor Mark Holland said.
Yet Wyandotte County still ranks last in the state’s 2016 county health rankings, he said.
“I don’t like being last,” Holland said at a Wednesday morning event highlighting the health initiative, which is being funded by a grant from the United Health Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that has awarded more than $300 million for health-related programs since 1999.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Wyandotte County’s challenges, said Jessica Kostner, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare.
Nearly 13 percent of county residents are diabetic, 11 percent suffer from asthma and 35 percent have high blood pressure. Only 57 percent reported having a medical home or usual source of primary care, “significantly lower than the state average of 72 percent.”
When people lack primary care physicians, they often turn to emergency rooms for non-emergencies, such as treatment of colds. Sometimes, sick people forgo treatment all together.
And some who recently obtained health insurance still have no idea how the health care system works, said Jerry Jones, executive director of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, which partnered on this project with the Kansas City Care Clinic. So they still don’t get the care they need.
The program will help them navigate the system, Jones said.
The Kansas City Care Clinic already had a small number of community health workers operating in the metropolitan area. The Wyandotte County program roughly doubles the number of such workers in the area, said Dennis Dunmyer, a vice president with the Kansas City Care Clinic.
One woman who recently arrived in Wyandotte County from El Salvador didn’t have money to get her thyroid prescription filled, so she went three months without medication, said Claudia Rodriguez-Rios, one of the new community health workers.
When they first met, the woman’s thyroid levels had fallen so far that she barely could speak, her hair was falling out and her skin looked ashen.
“She did not know where to go,” said Rodriguez-Rios, who has a list of low-cost and free health clinics where people can get help, and also knows where low-income people can obtain affordable medications.
The program’s ultimate goal is to teach people skills to manage their own healthy living so they don’t need the workers anymore, Dunmyer said.
Health clinics and hospitals refer potential clients, and each worker has been handing out fliers with contact information. The workers also have been trained to help the diverse Wyandotte County community, including refugees and non-English speakers.
“All of us have the right to receive health care,” Rodriguez-Rios said. “All of us have the right to be healthy.”
To refer a Wyandotte County resident to the program, contact Tom Miras Neira at 816-777-6621 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He supervises the seven Wyandotte County workers.