‘Healthmobile’ brings care to uninsured children in Phoenix

A mother holds her daughter as they speak to a healthcare provider.

Each morning, the team at Banner Health rolls out the awning, opens the door and welcomes families and children into a brightly colored waiting area. A bilingual medical assistant greets families and takes children’s vital signs before readying them to see the nurse practitioner.

It sounds like a children’s health clinic you’d find just about anywhere in the country. This clinic, however, is on wheels in the form of a 38-foot-long RV with pictures of the Sonoran Desert painted on the outside. It travels to underserved communities across the Phoenix area, treating uninsured children.

Bringing care to the community

Driven by an EMT, this “Healthmobile” run by Banner Health provides free acute and primary care, discounted referrals to specialists and a bridge to behavioral health care for school-age children. The RV makes regular stops in Phoenix’s Buckeye, Peoria, Glendale and Maricopa neighborhoods, where caregivers can make appointments for their children or walk in for well, sick or follow-up care, mental health screenings or specialist referrals.

Come Fall 2022, the RV will add a weekly stop in Phoenix’s South Mountain neighborhood to its roster because of a $50,000 grant from CVS Health. This grant is part of Health Zones, a new community investment initiative where CVS Health is partnering with local groups to invest in their programming and coordinate and launch new offerings that address the community’s most pressing health challenges. 

Health access needs are especially great within the 85040 ZIP code, which includes the South Mountain neighborhood. In this area, more than one-third of families are single-parent households, more than 44% of adults are unemployed, and there is a disproportionately high volume of residents 18 and younger. Moreover, Arizona ranks 40th in the nation for overall child well-being, with nine percent of children lacking health insurance and 19% living below the poverty line. To mirror these needs, CVS Health is specifically investing in programs for single parents and children in the 85040 ZIP code.

“Many of our children and families are used to receiving care either in emergency rooms or not at all,” explained Megan Christopherson, Banner Children’s Healthmobile’s program director, who helped build the mobile program 12 years ago. Over the last dozen years, the program has provided health services to more than 4,000 children across the communities being served.

Uninsured families, particularly in the further-reaching areas of Phoenix, weren’t utilizing brick-and-mortar clinics in part because of distance. Many of these families were also hesitant to access care for their children, fearing medical bills, threats to their immigration status, or not being able to communicate with providers due to language barriers.

“We wanted to create a safe, comfortable space for kids to receive free care right in their neighborhoods,” Megan said. “We’ve found that bringing care to families this way fundamentally changes their experiences with health care. By making care easy and familiar, parents and kids learn to make medical care part of their routine rather than a resource only for times of crisis.”  

On the road to accessible health care

The Banner Health program is designed to both relieve uninsured families’ worries about paying for their child’s health care and help them to navigate the broader health care system outside of the RV. Injuries and chronic conditions can overwhelm families financially and logistically, and without health insurance and with limited interactions with health care previously, many parents are at a loss for how to cope, Megan said. She remembers parents coming into the Healthmobile having sold their clothes and personal property to afford second inhalers for their child’s school and rationed insulin to lower than recommended doses for fear of not being able to pay for it.  Her team has seen children with months-old broken bones needing casts or surgery, but still wearing splints given to them in their initial ER visit because orthopedic follow-up care was either too costly or difficult to arrange.

By visiting the Healthmobile, this experience changes. Families gain information on how to access the specialists and equipment they need to manage their unique circumstances, with referred specialist visits and devices available at significantly reduced costs.

“You can see the panic begin lifting from parents as they hear they can get their children care without sacrificing other basic needs,” Megan said. “There are so many people in our community who are doing their best to provide and care for their children in the face of often great challenges, and lack of health insurance is often a symptom of that. I’m so glad we can take care of those families through this program.”