Our mission at Health Forward includes eliminating the barriers to quality health for the uninsured and underserved in our service area. The past three years as a Program Officer at Health Forward, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous organizations that are also working towards this goal. It is a challenging mission when times are good, but it becomes magnified during an economic downturn.
Since 2008, when the downturn first hit, our local emergency assistance and safety net health care organizations including shelters, food pantries and clinics, have been overwhelmed with new faces of need – the first time unemployed and uninsured. These faces include families and individuals who have never before needed assistance, many of them from suburban communities. And with new faces come new challenges.
When in need for the first time, it can be difficult to navigate a complicated and fragmented assistance system that was not designed as a one-stop shop. Previous conveniences such as transportation can quickly become compromised when, for example, the family car needs an expensive repair. This leaves few options for those in the suburbs and rural areas where public transportation is limited or even non-existent.
Sadly, if the foreclosures and the economic downturn continue, we will see more waves of stress on local emergency assistance and safety net health care programs, which are already at capacity. This is a major problem in an era of reduced investments in service organizations and lean budgets.
We should first recognize the new faces of need, while expanding programs and building new support systems. This will require creative and vigilant efforts from the entire community.