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U.S. News & World Report: The Power of Community to Improve Health

March 26, 2019 | Community

This op-ed authored by Karen Lynch, Executive Vice President, CVS Health and President, Aetna Business Unit, was originally published by U.S. News & World Report on March 26, 2019.

When it comes to better health, the power of real change lies within our communities. Health issues, such as obesity and opioid dependency, are widespread problems that have a tremendous impact on the physical, emotional and financial health of our nation.

While certain programs are successful in reducing the prevalence of such health issues and are scaled and replicated whenever possible, we must recognize that there are going to be elements of these problems that are as diverse and unique as the communities they impact. It is therefore critical that we not only share best practices, but also provide communities with the support and flexibility they need to create local solutions that have the power to affect real change and improve public health.

Our Commitment for Better Health

Being able to support community-driven solutions and then share them with organizations across the country is the core element of CVS Health’s new “Building Healthier Communities” initiative. As part of this effort, CVS Health and its affiliates have committed a combined $100 million over the next five years to making community health and wellness central to the company’s charge for a better world. By using the combined capabilities of both CVS Health and Aetna, as well as the philanthropic giving of the CVS Health Foundation and the Aetna Foundation, we can deliver a measurable impact on the health of communities across the United States.

The Aetna Foundation’s collaboration with U.S. News & World Report on the Healthiest Communities rankings is part of our larger strategy, providing us with data-based insight on communities across the country and helping us to see changes in community health over time. In addition to assessing which communities offer their citizens the greatest opportunity to live a productive, healthy life, the project serves as a tool to inform residents, health care leaders and elected officials about policies and best practices that help drive better health outcomes.

While this marks only the rankings’ second year, both CVS Health and Aetna have an outstanding and long-established history of community investment. Even though it typically takes public health programs time to make an impact, some of our most recently implemented programs are already creating long-lasting improvements in community health.

Better Health Is Powered Locally

CVS Health and Aetna support organizations throughout the country, but two programs in different parts of North Carolina demonstrate the potential impact of engaging with local communities to provide the support they need to create unique, targeted solutions.

Mecklenburg County is the most heavily populated county in the state and includes one of its most prominent cities, Charlotte. Here, the African-American population is disproportionately impacted by cardiovascular disease compared to their white counterparts.

To combat this, Village HeartBEAT — one of the grand prizewinners of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge — activated more than 60 local faith-based organizations to help over 20,000 local residents access health resources to reduce cardiovascular risk. As a result, VHB reduced the smoking rate in the community from 17.4 percent to 13.9 percent and obesity rates from 70 percent to 64.7 percent. Beyond the numbers, you can see and hear the passion from residents who are participating in this program and realize that they are improving the health of their community.

We've found that in rural communities in North Carolina, friends and neighbors have become the frontline defense against opioid overdose deaths. To address this issue, we are helping the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition give individuals the tools they need to recognize and respond to an overdose in order to save more lives. The results have been impressive. In 2018, coalition outreach workers distributed 6,408 naloxone kits to high-risk opioid users in five targeted rural counties, with 554 overdose reversal reports.

We believe the path to better health can be reached by creating a whole new health care model that's more local, affordable and easier to use. Strengthening our local support and community engagement is a key part of this approach. By empowering organizations and residents to implement local solutions, we have an incredible opportunity to improve the physical, emotional and economic well-being of the country, one community at a time.