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Fargo area community health workers aim to remove barriers to health care for underserved populations

Sanford Health community health worker program helps patients navigate access to health care and support services. By removing barriers, community health workers can reduce hospital and emergency room visits.

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Autumn Waverek, a community health worker for Sanford Health, stands outside a meeting room Dec. 9, 2021, at the New Life Center, Fargo. She works out of that office two days per week and travels to other locations the rest of the week.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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FARGO — The single mother was homeless, unemployed and unfamiliar with the bureaucratic maze she would have to navigate in order to obtain access to health care and supportive services.

But she had Autumn Waverek, a community health worker, at her side. Waverek helped the woman, who was fleeing an abusive relationship, get her two kids in school, sign up for free or reduced-cost lunches, find an apartment and secure a job.

“It gets really overwhelming sometimes,” Waverek said. “I can’t imagine what that mom had to go through.”

Waverek is one of three community health workers hired by Sanford Health in North Dakota — the others are in Bismarck, Mayville and Hillsboro — whose mission it is to improve health outcomes by helping people avoid falling through the gaps in the safety net.

Sanford got a grant from the North Dakota Department of Health to establish the community health worker program. Community health workers are not nurses. They specialize in helping advise people so they can receive needed health care and support services.

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Sanford’s community health worker program targets three populations: those who are 55 and older with chronic health conditions, disabled adults and homeless adults. Services are free to the patients, who often have no income or insurance.

The goal is to help patients better manage their health care, including chronic conditions, by removing barriers, such as lack of housing or food insecurity.

Often, patients in the program lack a primary care provider or find themselves in and out the hospital or doctors’ offices

“Sometimes, they fall through the cracks or there is a gap in care,” Waverek said. “That’s where I would come in.”

She regularly visits the YWCA and New Life Center homeless shelter. At any given time, she’s working with about 40 patients, but the roster is constantly changing. Part of her job is building a relationship with patients.

“They’re familiar with me,” Waverek said. “They trust me. It’s almost like you have a friendship. It’s bittersweet to close a case.”

Those helped by community health workers often are struggling with their physical or mental health, making it more difficult for them to solve their problems unassisted, said Melissa Erickson, Sanford’s director of case management.

Waverek’s assistance has helped to reduce visits to hospitals and emergency rooms by working with patients to better manage their health, including chronic conditions.

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“It’s something we’ve really been able to see,” Erickson said. Once the three-year, $1.5 million grant ends, Sanford hopes to absorb the community health worker program, she said.

The interim Health Committee of the North Dakota Legislature is studying the feasibility of implementing a community health worker program.

Legislators will consider the scope of work of a community health worker, training and certification of community health workers, and a strategy for community health worker services to be reimbursed by Medicaid.

Community health workers have been used since the 1950s, often serving in areas where health care services aren't easily accessible. As of 2019, there were more than 117,000 community health workers and health educators across the United States, according to federal figures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that community health workers can help reduce the demand on the health care system by conducting outreach and prevention education, coordinating care, improving patient communication and compliance and helping to achieve early diagnoses in underserved communities.

Anyone who wants more information about Sanford's community health worker program in Fargo can call 701-850-9879.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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