As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to widen existing health and health care disparities in the United States, the attainment of health equity looms large and is arguably our most pressing national priority to curb the pandemic. Social and economic vulnerabilities that have long preceded COVID-19 have perpetuated staggering challenges. Many in our nation now understand what public health experts have known for decades—underlying socioeconomic conditions in communities across the country predict health and health care outcomes more reliably than health care delivery itself. We are now increasingly compelled to declare racism as a public health crisis and have demonstrated that systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination can, in fact, be dismantled in weeks (not years). We are headed in the right direction.

The combination of a formidable virus and the unleashing of anger and action around social injustices in the US has created fertile ground to create synergy around health care and social justice. Subsequently, companies previously ambivalent on these issues have entered the roster of organizations and corporations taking action to achieve health equity as a moral and business imperative. Eliminating health disparities has moved from a goal post for public health agencies, nonprofits, philanthropists, community-based organizations, and researchers, to a necessity for the private sector—including the nation’s health plans.

America’s health plans assume the risk for millions of Americans and are responsible for the health of most Americans. In a health care delivery system that is highly fragmented, health plans are uniquely positioned to coordinate whole-person care across the lifespan. These organizations are also poised to lead efforts in health equity that will address the systemic and structural factors that have perpetuated health inequities for too long. To succeed in achieving health equity in these companies, it is crucial that investments in health equity leadership be made, at the highest level, and that health equity is weaved into the organizational fabric, strategic plan, and business goals of every health plan. What, then, should we expect to see if health equity leadership is prioritized and realized in our nation’s health plans? How can leadership in this space apply a health equity lens that is sustainable and scalable? As the inaugural chief health equity officer at Humana, I believe that successful health equity leadership in health plans will result in five major priorities and achievements.

Five Keys To Integrating Health Equity Into Health Plans

The role of chief health equity officer in national health plans is an emerging one, but one that is most certainly overdue. As I have assumed this role at Humana, I am inspired by our bold vision of making health equity a key part of a health plan business model. To thrive in this role, I will need to effectively lead work that defines enterprisewide measures of equity, define and create health equity improvement goals, and coordinate efforts to achieve those goals across all of Humana’s lines of business. This will require creating deep partnerships across all segments of the business, including care delivery, home health, retail, and commercial segments.

The five major priorities (and the achievements that will result from these priorities) for health equity leadership in health plans I’ve identified are:

  1. Prioritizing Prevention and Wellness: Benefits and care delivery redesign
  2. Prioritizing Communities: Engagement and investments
  3. Prioritizing Innovation: Population and digital health
  4. Prioritizing Education, Research, and Workforce Development: Academic-community collaborations
  5. Prioritizing Action and Accountability: Data-driven improvement

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J. Nwando Olayiwola, MAY 20, 2021, Health Affairs