Jun. 10—Another slice of stimulus funding coming to New Hampshire this month will fund public health programs with a scope well beyond COVID-19.
With money from the December 2020 stimulus package, the state Department of Health and Human Services will receive a grant of more than $24.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin tackling health disparities in the state.
"The CDC has recognized, as we all have, that COVID shined a light on the health disparities that existed before COVID," said Tricia Tilley, director of the state's Division of Public Health Services.
The pandemic made it clear to Tilley and other state health officials that they need to address factors that impact a person's health outside of health care itself — like access to safe housing, reliable transportation, education, job opportunities, healthy food, as well race and ethnicity.
"We saw in COVID that some of those barriers, like access to transportation, or a job where you're really on the front line, put folks at more risk," Tilley said.
The $24.5 million announced this week, which comes from the December 2020 stimulus package, will go in large part to funding two years' of work for community health workers.
Tilley explained that community health workers are respected members of their communities — which could mean someone well-known in an immigrant community, or someone who is plugged-in to life in a small town — who have been trained to connect members of their community with local resources that help their health. That could mean helping someone get a COVID-19 test or vaccine, or connecting someone living in a lead-contaminated home with lead-remediation programs.
Tilley said she thinks people will be willing to step into public health jobs, and become community health workers, after more than a year of intense focus on public health.
More funding for health workers
As concerns about vaccine hesitancy pushed public health officials to engage more deeply with communities that have historically had little connection with, or trust in, the health care system, community health work has become a bigger funding priority.
The American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package from March of this year, provided $1 million for community health workers in New Hampshire. More than $20 million from the December stimulus went to public health departments and community health centers, some of which paid for community health workers. In Manchester and Nashua, community health workers have been a key part of making sure immigrant and minority communities can access the vaccine, and feel comfortable doing so.
Community health work has been a big part of the urban fight against COVID-19, but Tilley said the state will spend almost half of the new funding in rural areas.
Health officials will be hiring community health workers in the North Country, Tilley said. Some of the funding will also go to rural hospitals, Tilley said, and transportation planning in northern New Hampshire.
Like all stimulus funds, the $24.5 million grant comes with a ticking clock. The state has only two years to spend the money, but Tilley said she wants to find a way to permanently fund community health workers.
She is thinking of the grant as "seed" funding for a longer-term community health worker program, to keep connecting people not just to immediate health care, but programs that can improve their health in the long-term.
The state will also use some of the funding to assess the way the state gathers data about health disparities, and how it uses that data to make policy.