For all its complexities, the central problem of homelessness is obvious in the word itself. Homeless people…lack homes.
There are currently over half a million Americans dealing with homelessness, according to official estimates, and even if they’re receiving some type of medical care or other assistance everything is made much more complicated without a permanent place to stay.
Now one of the largest insurance-providers in the country, UnitedHealth Group, is testing a program that addresses that central problem by giving homeless people somewhere to live.
A pilot program is currently underway using two housing complexes in Phoenix, Arizona and is being overseen by Jeffrey Brenner, a doctor with a history of working with the homeless.
According to Bloomberg:
“Brenner is using UnitedHealth’s money to pay for housing and support services for roughly 60 formerly homeless recipients of Medicaid, the safety-net insurance program for low-income people.”
Brenner is of the opinion that trying to treat homeless people, who often have health problems, while they’re on the street is nearly impossible, telling Bloomberg: “Can you imagine people living on the street with these disorders? Heart failure, COPD. They’re rolling around with oxygen tanks, crazy stuff.”
He added that the current state of affairs is both amoral and nonsensical, saying:
“This is just sad. This is just stupid. Why do we let this go on?”
Providing people with housing isn’t an act of charity from the insurance giant, it’s actually much more cost effective for them. According to Bloomberg Medicaid patients (which states pay them to insure) make up some 20% of UnitedHealth’s business, providing a whopping $43 billion in revenue to the company in 2018. The company loses money, however, on homeless patients who rely on frequent emergency room visits for most of their care.
Without housing, homeless people often get stuck in a horrendous and extremely expensive pattern of cycling endlessly through emergency rooms and shelters – receiving inadequate care at exorbitant prices.
According to Bloomberg one patient, named Steve, who suffers from a variety of ailments including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease, and diabetes, was homeless and incurring huge monthly medical bills before receiving an apartment via the UnitedHealth program. The stability of having housing drastically reduced Steve’s medical costs.
More, from Bloomberg:
“In the 12 months prior to moving in, Steve went to the ER 81 times, spent 17 days hospitalized, and had medical costs, on average, of $12,945 per month. In the nine months since he got a roof over his head and health coaching from Brenner’s team, Steve’s average monthly medical expenses have dropped more than 80%, to $2,073.”
After testing Brenner’s program in several cities the plan is to expand it to 30 markets in 2020, according to Bloomberg.
While a program that cuts costs is obviously attractive to insurers, whether the model is one worth following will come down to whether it results in improved healthcare and more positive outcomes for homeless people.