Christine Rodriguez, Program Associate
National Advocacy & Organizing
A few short days from the October 1 marketplace openings, and uncertainty and confusion linger in discussions around healthcare and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Policy experts, providers, and consumers alike speculate, and it seems there will be more questions than answers until we at last see how reforms play out across the country.
The HIV/AIDS community knows that health reform, both affectionately and derisively referred to as “Obamacare,” certainly benefits people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and those at risk; we absolutely need to spread the word far and wide. But let us also be sure to remember the existing tools in our arsenal that can maximize those benefits. One such tool, often detrimentally omitted from conversations about health care, is unequivocally an effective, cost-saving intervention – HOUSING.
Housing is Healthcare!, Housing is Prevention!, or Housing Saves Lives!, aren’t rallying cries that Housing Works advocates causally toss into articles and testimony or banners and protest signs simply out of habit after nearly 25 years of advocacy and activism. The health and cost-related benefits conferred by access to safe, affordable housing are well demonstrated by research, both for PLWHA and to prevent transmission among HIV-negative homeless populations.
|Housing Works' Housing is Healthcare Rally|
For marginalized communities – whether HIV-positive, living with mental illness or substance abuse issues, or others unstably housed – having housing means better holistic health. Even without the research this is common sense, right? Housing means having a place to store medications and healthy food, get a full night’s sleep, and often relief from the fear of violence. It means an address for job applications, avoiding hypothermia in the winter, and a safe space to engage with family, friends, and lovers. It means treatment adherence, safer sex, and everything taken for granted by many of us every day.
New York State, leading by example, is not taking housing for granted in its current efforts to improve the healthcare system. Governor Cuomo is proving to be a national leader in the effort to effectively utilize the Medicaid program and underscore that housing IS healthcare. New York’s Medicaid Redesign Team (MRT) was initiated in 2011, and early on an Affordable Housing work group was deemed critical and included in the process. Gov. Cuomo, thanks to MRT’s efforts, recently announced a $4.6 billion savings over the past year alone. From those savings, the Supportive Housing Initiative will be allocated $36.4 million in capital funds, $30.6 million in rental/service subsidies, and $24 million for critical new pilot programs – a total of $91 million.
New opportunities require new ways of thinking; innovation is necessary to address the complex and diverse health concerns of PLWHA, especially as the population ages. The MRT allocation for pilot housing programs begins to address this – one of several critical projects being the “Health Home HIV+ Rental Assistance Project.” Much to our collective chagrin, it is not uncommon for official policy to be somewhat disconnected from lived reality. Under current HIV/AIDS Services Administration regulations in New York City, instead of providing housing to prevent exacerbating illness, one must already have an AIDS diagnosis or advanced HIV-illness to even qualify for such services. This pilot project creates access to housing for HIV-positive individuals otherwise medically ineligible for existing programs, finally prioritizing true preventive care PLWHA.
Jason Helgerson, New York’s Medicaid Director, explained it plain and simple – that finally “[t]here is a growing national recognition that addressing the social determinants of health is critical for improving health while reducing health care costs. This is most evident in the matter of housing.” This recognition, coupled with financial commitment, is essential for homeless communities and PLWHA. States seeking to maximize Medicaid dollars – whether or not they opt for expansion – should consider adopting or (dare I say) expanding upon this model of redesign, reinvestment, and innovation. The historic opportunities created by ACA reforms present a crucial time to take full advantage of evidence-based interventions, like housing, to truly commit to realizing the end of AIDS.