Good doctors and hospitals alone are not what keep people well and help them recover when they are ill. “So much about health and what it takes to be healthy is more than the medical system and straight medical care,” says Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of NJ Healthcare Quality Institute. For “humans to be healthy, thriving people,” also requires housing, food, transportation, and connection to other services in the community.
Community partners, including government agencies and area nonprofits, provide those extra services that “we as a community need to help people with, to have a healthier community,” Schwimmer says.
Schwimmer will moderate a panel on “The Role of Community Partners in Healthcare,” Sunday, September 16, from noon to 3 p.m. at Windsor Athletic Club, 99 Clarksville Road in West Windsor. Other panelists are Shereef Elnahal, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, and Mary Grace Billek, director of human services of Mercer County. To RSVP, go to www.medinahealthcare.org or call 609-273-9488 or 609-270-5067.
Schwimmer offered several examples of how particular community partners have helped improve the quality and even the affordability of healthcare:
Medina Community Clinic. When patients come to the clinic, which provides quality health services, focusing on specialty healthcare, at no cost to the underserved members of the community, they often struggle on all fronts. “For a lot of people, their whole life is in crisis. It’s not only that they can’t control blood sugar levels for diabetes — they haven’t slept with a roof over the head or eaten [healthily],” says Schwimmer, who is a board member of the clinic. So Medina does not just connect them with a physician for care, but also connects them to transportation, housing, food, and other services.
These more multifaceted community efforts to maintain health, Schwimmer says, are “partly government and partly that people are starting to realize that when they talk about the health of a community, it’s really so much broader than the medical system. The medical system is important, to screen and test, but it is only a part of it.”
Nutrition Program for the Elderly. “Hospitals have very specific roles to play — they get you out, prevent you from getting ill, and keep you out. But if you don’t have access to good fruits and vegetables, and you are not in a safe place where you can recreate — these are other things that impact people’s well-being,” says Mary Grace Billek, director of the Mercer County Department of Human Services.
Her department runs the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, which feeds 800 Mercer County senior citizens every weekday, mostly through local senior centers. “We provide transportation and provide a meal that is nutritionally sound and gives people one-third of all the things they need to be well,” she says. They also provide special meals for people with hypertension who need to control their salt intake and diabetics who need their sugar controlled.
These centers also serve another critical role for isolated seniors. “What is more important than the meal is the fact that they leave home, go to the senior center, and socialize,” she says. “We can contact family members if there are medical problems or we start to see people forgetting things or saying things that don’t make any sense.”
New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance. This agency is funding three housing projects that provide support to people with mental health issues and substance abuse disorders, physical disabilities, and chronic disease. They contract with local agencies to provide case management, linkages to health care, and other services. “There is a lot of coalescing together when you are talking about people with chronic medical conditions, whether they are mental health, drugs, or fragile medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension — you have to make sure people have access to the right kind of food and transportation,” Billek says.
New Jersey Department of Health. Although overall New Jersey ranks among the best in infant mortality overall, says Shereef Elnahal, “for non-Hispanic African American infant mortality in New Jersey, we are seeing staggeringly higher rates” and “this disparity is simply inexcusable.” The problem has been “not getting care and support to where folks are in the community,” both in the inner city and in rural areas without easy access to prenatal care and other forms of support for new mothers. To lower infant mortality the New Jersey Department of Health has developed several programs.
Elnahal’s department will also be funding family planning, with a focus on long-acting reversible contraception, which, he says, “helps women space their births in a way that allows them to prepare for their next child more effectively.” They will also fund increased access across the state to 17P shots for select women who have already had a preterm birth; this reduces the chance of having another preterm birth.
Schwimmer grew up in Long Beach, California. Her mom stayed at home and “took very good care of us.” Her father is a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, who spent his whole career at Kaiser, which she says “is really a model system.”
“He influenced me in that he loved what he did, and he was passionate about what he did every day,” Schwimmer says. “What I was looking for in a career is something I cared a lot about and wanted to do every day.”
Her undergraduate degree is from the University of California, Berkeley, and she graduated from Georgetown University Law Center.
She clerked for a judge at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, worked as an attorney at the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and spent a decade in private practice, specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law.
Schwimmer then worked in state government in policy and counsel positions with the Senate Majority Office and as director of legislation and policy for the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance.
Before joining the institute, Schwimmer was director of strategic relations and external affairs at Horizon Healthcare Innovations, a subsidiary of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
“I was always interested in public policy, the bigger system, how to change things,” Schwimmer says. Now, at the NJ Healthcare Quality Institute, she is working on a number of initiatives, “with a common focus of trying to improve the quality and safety of healthcare, increase the transparency of information for consumers, and to make care more affordable.”