I strongly believe that your zip code shouldn’t determine your health outcomes. Growing up, my family didn’t have private health insurance – we relied on the public health system, as did many other families in the Acres Homes neighborhood of Houston, Texas. My father died of cancer when I was 13, having never received any treatment other than painkillers. We didn’t even know he had leukemia until after his death. He went to the ER, picked up his prescription and continued.
As the mayor of Houston, these lessons from my childhood impact the way I view health policy.
In my party, there is a controversy over whether nationalized health care or a market-based approach to universal care is the solution. But we cannot suspend community access to health care while we argue. Lives are in the balance. The value-based care models from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services focus on preventative care, help keep patients out of emergency care, and incentivize coordinated care and better outcomes – approaches I’ve seen working in Houston.
The Complete Communities Houston Initiative was established in 2017 during my first term to ensure that everyone has access to quality services and facilities, including healthcare. Complete Communities’ mission is to build and maintain upscale neighborhoods, focusing on 10 that are historically understaffed, including the area I grew up in. I am proud that this initiative is community-based and resident-led. Neighborhoods work together to create action plans to address economic, environmental and equity challenges which are then approved by our city council and implemented by the Mayor’s Office for Comprehensive Communities.
I have worked alongside residents and local leaders to address our city’s biggest challenges. In Houston, we know that health care isn’t just about caring for people when they’re sick, it means giving them the resources to live a safer, healthier life. Unique programs such as CAPABLE (Community Aging in Place – Advancing Better Living for Elders), a home-based program developed by the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing that combines nursing care, occupational therapy and handyman services, have helped seniors and Medicare beneficiaries across the city achieve greater independence and reduce the impact of health disparities.
Of course, the health and well-being of the individual and the community are affected by social and economic stressors, such as homelessness and food insecurity. Since 2012, we have provided more than 25,000 Houstonians with safe and permanent housing. In January, we announced $ 100 million in funding for programs to reduce homelessness and $ 65 million in COVID-related funding. This is proof that federal resources really make a difference and why Democrats in Biden’s administration and Congress need to re-engage in innovative, value-based healthcare models that help cities like Houston.
Our most vulnerable residents need access to long-term personalized primary care to address chronic medical conditions, mental health and physical disabilities. I have seen many Houstonians who have turned to the emergency room and ambulances for medical care, just like my father did, because they don’t know where else to turn. Once they have a relationship with a primary care provider, we need to ensure that the care they receive is comprehensive and affordable. If it’s not convenient, it’s not affordable.
American mayors are enthusiastic partners in the pursuit of healthier communities and greater equity. The United States Conference of Mayors and the Association of African American Mayors have both passed resolutions in support of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI )’s Accountable Care Organization Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health (ACO REACH) model, the first program to request a health equity plan to reduce disparities and collect patient demographics related to the social determinants of health.
It is impossible to understand the needs of an individual without understanding his circumstances and these data will help us discern which resources are most vital. However, for the model to also have a chance to be successful, it needs broad federal support. I’m telling lawmakers: no more debates. The time has come to support a program that will improve health outcomes for all Americans.
Local leaders can and should be advocates of public-private partnerships that build stronger and healthier cities. But we can’t do it alone, and we need the support of Washington’s leaders to provide affordable health care for all.
Sylvester Turner has been the mayor of Houston, Texas since 2016.