Mankato CHW Hub Director Evan Curtin and Director of COVID response Sakhaudiin Mohamud provide outreach at a local Mankato Islamic Center.

There’s a false narrative in Minnesota that immigrant and communities of color only exist in the metro. As Minnesota becomes more diverse, advocates are working together to create support networks to cultivate and foster equity and systems change in rural communities. Innovative partnerships to advance health equity in rural communities were featured at the recent 2021 Rural Equity Summit, hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension, Greater Mankato Diversity Council, and Saint Peter Public Schools.

Bridging Gaps

The keynote of the event featured the partnership between the Mankato Clinic, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (Blue Cross), and Wellshare International that is helping to build health equity infrastructure in rural Minnesota. The goal of the partnership is to connect more people in the Mankato area to community health workers, to help bridge the gap between addressing health outcomes and the underlying social conditions that impact those outcomes.

In Minnesota and across the globe, community health workers play an essential role in addressing issues that create barriers to good health. They provide a range of important services, including nutrition education, prevention and management of chronic diseases, family planning and reproductive health education, and skills for immigrants and refugees to navigate the U.S. health system, among many others. “We will be able to serve Mankato residents and people in surrounding towns that help keep Mankato’s economy healthy.” WellShare community health worker Ellen de la Torre shares, “To be that person who can sit down with another, help identify and prioritize their needs, and then advocate on their behalf is so empowering!”

Strength in collaboration

The organizations are working together to address collective barriers to health in the Mankato area. The Mankato Clinic has served the region for more than 100 years and has increasingly recognized that their patients’ struggles with social issues and meeting basic needs may be impacting their ability to care for themselves and their family. They set out to become better equipped to help patients outside of the clinic setting. As Ceceli Polzin of Mankato Clinic put it at the 2021 MN Rural Equity Summit, “If they’re struggling with (social determinants of health), they’re not going to be focusing on their own health, their own chronic disease,” said Polzin, the clinic’s community and customer relations manager. “What we’re hoping is that if we can bridge that gap and help our patients with some of those barriers out in the community, they will have the capacity to start focusing on their health.”

WellShare is recognized among health systems (domestically and in East Africa) as an expert in the recruitment and training of community health workers and is regarded as the pioneer of the community health worker model in Minnesota. In their 42-year history, they have trained over 6,000 CHWs to provide evidence-based services for reducing health disparities – and their health education materials are used by health providers around the world. “WellShare’s commitment to social justice and racial equity drove us to open this hub in Mankato,” said Evan Curtin, Director of the Mankato community health worker hub. “Marginalized communities in rural areas deserve equal access to healthcare and there are significant, unique barriers to this outside the Twin Cities.”

Blue Cross has been focused on building out Minnesota’s community health worker environment over the past 15 years as part of the organization’s mission to improve the health of all Minnesotans. This work has included being the first insurer in the state offering no-cost coverage of community health worker benefits to commercial health plan members. Supporting a robust infrastructure for community health workers is a key component of this work and is what led to this innovative collaboration. “This partnership is about tackling collective barriers to health while building the infrastructure needed both in our communities and within our healthcare system,” said Bukata Hayes, vice president of Racial and Health Equity at Blue Cross. “We are committed to eliminating racial and health inequities in a way that is financially sustainable, deeply impactful, and systemically transformative.”

Impact on workforce

Workforce development has long been a barrier to many programs across the state that utilize licensed community health workers. One goal of the partnership is to ensure that sustainable, long-lasting career pathways are available for community health workers, to inspire talented young students to see this work as a potential pathway for career development.

No one organization on its own can tackle the pressing challenges of advancing racial and health equity. This partnership unites stakeholders from across the Mankato community, and from across the health care system, to create and carry out creative solutions to Minnesota’s most pressing collective challenges. It’s part of Blue Cross’ commitment to investing in, building, testing and expanding models that both utilize and transform the existing healthcare infrastructure to close racial and health inequities.