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Immediate Response and Long-Term Solutions in the Face of COVID-19

ByDan Brillman|May 13, 2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our team will be interviewing experts from across the ecosystem to bring the HLTH community timely facts and updates.

Long before COVID-19 was part of our reality, my Co-Founder Taylor Justice and I set out to design a system that would bridge the gaps between social care and healthcare, an infrastructure to ensure that people’s needs were met holistically across communities–not in a siloed, fragmented way. We initially created Unite Us in 2013 to help veterans and their families transition back to civilian life, simplifying care coordination and service delivery for providers and ultimately the people seeking those services. Since then, our community-driven work has organically expanded into the healthcare industry, working with partners all over the country to address critical social needs so that people’s health improves. Little did we know then how relevant and critical this integrated model would support communities around the country respond to the pandemic and ensure that the most underserved, vulnerable people do not slip through the cracks. Unite Us was built for this. 

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare an undeniable fact: the people hardest hit are those who already lacked resources, had limited access to quality social and clinical care, and in some cases are one paycheck(or worse) away from putting food on the table or paying the rent. Study after study show that the people who are suffering the most both medically and economically during the pandemic are the ones who were underserved before it hit. 

In the past several weeks, more than 30 million people filed unemployment claims. Many Americans are turning to safety net benefits programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which was already servicing 36 million Americans by the end of 2019. With a limited supply of providers and services to meet this record volume of applications, more Americans will suffer. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, about 44 million Americans had no health insurance, and over 38 million people were living in poverty. These numbers will continue to climb as the unemployment rate skyrockets. 

The fact is, the fight against this virus is not only happening in hospitals, but throughout individual communities across the country. Americans are strongly urged to physically distance themselves from others at a time where they need to be connected more than ever, especially to health and social care providers for the essential services they need. 

We’ve observed our healthcare systems lament not being better prepared for this crisis. But this medical crisis foreshadows what we’ve known since we launched Unite Us: we need national, comprehensive public health infrastructure that sufficiently serves both medical and social needs. We also need sufficient and sustainable funding for community organizations, nonprofits, and other agencies who are on the frontlines meeting people’s social needs, just as the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers in the hospitals are on the frontlines meeting their medical ones.  In short, we must elevate social care to the same priority level as health care. 

Fortunately, Unite Us was able to seamlessly adapt to remote work, continuing to engage at a deep level with both our health and social service partners, identifying what they needed from us and adjusting to provide solutions, even while physically distant. 

Here’s a high-level view of what we’ve been up to:

  • We are building Rapid Response Networks that we stand up in shorter periods of time. In just a few weeks, we launched Unite NYC in collaboration with Public Health Solutions  and AIRnyc that includes CBOs from all over New York City to help those hardest hit by the pandemic. That grassroots community network is growing daily.
  • We’ve added COVID-19 screening tools into our existing partners’ workflow, so that they can readily assess and address social needs arising directly from the pandemic.
  • We’ve also added a COVID-19 exposure assessment that allows our partners to appropriately direct people to the care they need, helping to redirect people away from hospitals and to the proper local resource if in fact they’ve been exposed, but aren’t critically ill.
  • We have accelerated the growth of our networks while ensuring that we support every organization’s adjustment to their service offerings throughout the crisis. 

While the need for an immediate response to COVID-19 is crucial in the short term, we also need to think about what a post-pandemic world will look like - and execute on that now.  

Here are some action steps we can take:

  • Direct stimulus and relief funding equitably to the non-profit sector, to CBOs who are struggling to keep their doors open in the very communities who need the most help.
  • Develop a national, comprehensive public health infrastructure that brings together partners from ALL sectors–non-profit, healthcare, insurance, government and business–who can work collaboratively towards a service delivery system that is inclusive, fair and sustainable for the long haul.
  • Shift mindsets to recognize that social care must be valued equally to healthcare if we are ever to truly build healthier communities across this country.

For over seven years, Unite Us has been strategically building the technological infrastructure to allow for secure information sharing between community network providers, enabling them to send and receive electronic referrals, and track outcomes together to ensure people are getting the care they need. Sending people into a service black hole without accountability will never transform care delivery, nor lead to healthier people and communities. Only when we can track outcomes, identify gaps in services and direct funding to where it’s needed most, will we start to see impactful, systemic change. 

We will be dealing with COVID-19’s impact for the foreseeable future. We know--and have always known--that the power of a connected community and care coordination is absolutely critical for immediate recovery efforts, the ability to stabilize, regroup and heal, and finally, to be prepared for inevitable future health crises. As a nation, we need to invest in communities to ensure that people can get back on their feet. A far-reaching infrastructure needs to be part of that investment.

About Dan Brillman:

Dan Brillman, CEO and Co-Founder of Unite Us, graduated from Yale University in 2006 and worked in finance and consulting before joining the Air Force Reserves as a combat pilot, where he still serves today. After earning his MBA from Columbia Business School in 2012, Dan worked in venture capital in NYC, where he focused on investing and technological innovation until co-founding Unite Us in 2013. He is a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service and was recently added to Business Insider’s “30 People Under 40 Changing Healthcare.”