Under normal circumstances they would be competitors, but two Baltimore health systems are combining resources to create economic opportunities to address health disparities in the sickest neighborhoods in the state.
Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States announced Wednesdaythat it is giving Bon Secours Baltimore Health System $1.7 million to build a community resource center that officials hope will spur economic opportunity in communities that are part of the 21223 ZIP code of West Baltimore.
The two health systems think that increasing residents' ability to get jobs and earn a living will eventually improve their health.
The initiative comes as hospitals are learning they need to do more than treat patients' medical conditions, but also help address social issues, such as transportation and poverty, that may prevent people from going to the doctor.
"It is not enough to provide excellent health care," said Celeste James, Kaiser's director of community health initiatives. "People need their basic needs met around economic stability to really focus on health."
Bon Secours' Baltimore hospital already provides many of the services that will be offered at the new resource center through a program it runs called Community Works. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Kaiser officials thought partnering with a hospital with roots in the community would be more beneficial.
The partnership with Kaiser will allow Bon Secours to expand its offerings, which include job training and a transition program for people being released from incarceration. The two health systems will work together on programming.
Most of the patients that frequent Bon Secours come through the emergency room, said CEO Dr. Samuel Ross. Many live in poverty and have untreated chronic conditions that could be better controlled with preventive care.
Separate health analyses by both Kaiser and Bon Secours found the area — which includes the neighborhoods of Boyd-Booth, Penrose/Fayette Street Outreach and Franklin Square — are the unhealthiest in the state. The average life expectancy of people in the neighborhoods in that area is 68.3 years, or 11 years less than the state average.
"We have been focused on these issues for some time now," Ross said. "But none of us can truly do all of this on our own. The more partnerships and collaborations we have that allow us to scale programs and services and scale access to these services is what really is going to help make a difference."
The idea for the partnership was sparked after the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries suffered in police custody in 2015. Kaiser officials were looking for ways to invest in the West Baltimore area.
During a community meeting with residents, a common theme quickly emerged — people wanted more economic opportunities. Many also complained that the shuttering of a public library 20 years ago on Payson Street had created a void that the community had never recovered from. The new resource center will be built at the site of that library.
The resource center will also offer mental health services. The health systems will partner with community groups such as Roberta's House, which provides grief counseling to those who have lost loved ones to violence.
Kaiser hopes the resource center and partnership last as long as a similar project in Los Angeles. The health system opened a counseling and learning center there shortly after the Watts riots 50 years ago. The center started in a small room with three employees and is now located in a 9,000-square-foot facility and employs 30 therapists, teachers, counselors and other workers.
As part of the partnership, Kaiser and Bon Secours plan to help support the creation and growth of 10 businesses in the community. The health systems also hope to attract more partners to embark on larger economic development projects and reduce the area's unemployment rate in the future.
"When funders are looking for opportunities, they are also trying to see where there is synergy," Ross said. "The more we can demonstrate that partnerships are leading to improvements of outcomes over time, then others will want to invest in the revitalization as well."
One resident said she hopes the partnership will be good news for her neighborhood.
"If they can do some of the things they say they will, I think it could change the whole community around us," said Bertha Nixon, head of the Boyd-Booth Neighborhood Association.
The Baltimore City Health Department has made it a priority to reduce the health disparities seen among neighborhoods. City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the partnership between Kaiser and Bon Secours could help.
"Improving health is not entirely possible without reducing the rampant disparities," she said.