Former HUD Deputy Secretary sees Blue Cross MN as healthy community building catalystNovember 28, 2017
During a recent visit to Minnesota, Ron Sims, chair of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Board and former Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, visited with Blue Cross employees to discuss observations from his work at the county, state and federal levels.
While visiting, Sims shared why he sees Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota as a catalyst for building healthy communities that civic and grassroots advocacy leaders across the nation should follow.
We sat down with Sims to get his take on what Minnesota is doing right and where there are opportunities for organizations like Blue Cross to grow their efforts in improving communities for healthier outcomes.
You have business goals and financial responsibilities as a health plan.
You also have a responsibility to change how health care is used and to mobilize communities.
You have been able to do both. I believe other health plans should look to what you are doing because Blue Cross is a catalyst in this work.
What should be the first focus in creating healthier spaces?
The first focus should be community design and construction. If the housing is beautiful, the neighborhood will be, too.
Second, neighborhoods need to be structurally accessible, so access to transportation is critical. More robust transportation systems are directly linked to lower poverty rates.
Healthy communities also have a great deal of vegetation— parks, sports fields, community gardens and trees offer a canopy. Green spaces are important because they serve as a community gathering space where activities and communal opportunities can take shape.
Finally, a healthy community is designed to make walking and biking easy, with a focus specifically on the needs of seniors and children. Walking paths should include wide sidewalks. Paths should be marked, lighted and clearly visible to make them welcoming. Streets and boulevards also need to be easily accessible with paths and signals that provide a safe method of movement for those on foot or traveling by bicycle.
Having visited Minnesota a few times, what are we doing well?
I always enjoy coming to Minnesota. In my role as Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, I encouraged people to look to what is happening in the Twin Cities. It is a marvelous community with extraordinary potential to do amazing things.
Across the nation, people who focus on community building look to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Diverse groups regularly come together here to improve their communities. That doesn’t happen everywhere. I like that “tackle a problem” approach. It’s how this community has been for a long time.
In the next 10 to 15 years, I expect the Twin Cities will become a very transformative urban area. People are going to flock to Minneapolis and St. Paul because of the flexibility and acceptance of change as a positive feature for the community. I hope you’re ready.
What is something you are most proud of within your career?
I’m very proud to have conducted the first study that showed how ZIP codes can predict health outcomes. It clearly exhibited that investments need to be made to improve neighborhood livability. It’s amazing what can be done with a body of data. In this case, ZIP code information clearly showed that creating a safe environment is proven to improve health. No one debates that any longer.
The ZIP code studies also forced us to look at racial and segregation issues that impact communities. People don’t want to leave their communities, so it is not a solution to encourage people to move to “better” communities. Instead, we need to restore communities. There’s now a focus on making investments in current communities, instead of encouraging people to move to different areas.
As a result of this large body of work, we broke down many silos, and ultimately paved the path for a new national health policy.
What is the greatest opportunity for Blue Cross?
First, keep your commitment to transforming communities. Blue Cross is one of the reasons things are happening. You’re not only an insurer, but an investor in community health outcomes. You have a place at the table and are well respected for your efforts. Good things can occur based on your work in community health.
Second, the data that health plans have is incredibly powerful. It’s really a matter of how to use it well. Health plans have shown rising cost trends and influence how people use health care to help reduce costs. Continuing to work with the right groups to use this data is a significant opportunity.
You have business goals and financial responsibilities as a health plan. You also have a responsibility to change how health care is used and to mobilize communities. You have been able to do both. I believe other health plans should look to what you are doing because Blue Cross is a catalyst in this work.