COPH students help expand “health” options through the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan

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Imagine you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you suddenly lose your job —and your health insurance.

What then?

The USF College of Public Health (COPH) and its students have long played a vital role in helping to provide health care to those in the community who need it most.

College faculty, community leaders and advocates worked together over 25 years ago to create the Hillsborough County Health Care PlanDr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health and medicine, was one of the original creators of the plan, and Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH, has served on the plan’s advisory board for 15 years.

The plan offers health care coverage to low-income county residents between the ages of 18 and 65 who do not quality for other health insurance programs.  It is funded through a half-cent raise in the sales tax.

“Overall, the plan benefits individuals by providing them with health care access they wouldn’t otherwise have. It also helps providers by giving them a source of payment for services [for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it],” said Petersen. “And it benefits the community at large by providing a forum for discussing issues that affect the health of everyone.”

The COPH’s involvement in the plan was expanded several years ago when Gene Earley, deputy director of Hillsborough County Health Care Services, approached Petersen about getting  students from the college involved in developing a broader vision for the health plan.

An initial group of students worked with the county over a semester to assess health needs in several neighborhoods. These data suggested there was an opportunity to offer the community services related to preventing disease and promoting wellness.

The following semester, a second group of students set about to identify all the assets available within the community that could be brought together for the benefit of the overall health of the residents.

(Photo from Google Images)

“We then began sending students every semester, and [the health department] was so pleased with their work that they decided to turn it into a paid internship,” said Petersen. “Through this unique health care plan, we were able to create this incredible partnership that centered on improving health in the community.”

The plan covers the 10 essential services, such as hospitalization, pregnancy care and prescription drugs, as required by law. It also covers mental health and certain dental services, which are some of the larger community needs the COPH students found while conducting their assessments.

Students also created a scoring system that provides incentives for people on the plan to participate in healthy activities. Participants that attend certain classes, or utilize fitness services regularly, for example, earn points.

“These points can earn you access to more coverage, such as expanded dental services. This is great because you give people an incentive to participate in services that the plan and the county provide to improve their overall health,” said Petersen.

The overarching goal of the plan is to facilitate a better understanding of health within the community and how it can be improved.

“Once you get individuals in the door through the health care plan, other needs will surface,” said Petersen, “and addressing those needs can create an overall healthier county.”

Story by Cody Brown, USF College of Public Health