Dr. Zachary Pruitt examines how access to social services reduces health care costs

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Study finds connecting patients with social services to address social determinants of health generates double-digit reduction in health care spending

Dr. Zachary Pruitt, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at the USF College of Public Health, is the lead author on new research finding health care spending substantially reduced when people are successfully connected to social services to address social barriers, or social determinants of health, such as secure housing, medical transportation, healthy food programs, and utility and financial assistance.

Zachary Pruitt, PhD, MHA

The study, “Expenditure Reductions Associated with a Social Service Referrral Program,” released by WellCare Health Plans, Inc. and the University of South Florida is published in Population Health Management.

It assessed the impact of social services among Medicaid and Medicare Advantage members on health care costs such as physician office visits and emergency department use, reported an additional 10 percent reduction in health care costs – equating to $2,443 per person per year savings – for people who were successfully connected to social services compared to a control group of members who were not.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that support for social service programs and interventions can improve community health outcomes and reduce health care spending, especially among Medicare and Medicaid populations who are often challenged by social determinants of health.

“While there is growing recognition that socioeconomic factors substantially affect a person’s health status, this research is an important step toward quantifying how addressing social determinants of health impacts health costs,” Pruitt said. “The results of our study show that providing social service assistance relates to significantly lowered health care spending.”

Study Details

The study examined medical expenditures associated with 2,718 WellCare Medicaid and Medicare Advantage plan members who accessed WellCare’s Community Assistance Line—a toll-free, nationwide line open to the general public. The Community Assistance Line is part of WellCare’s broader Center for CommUnity Impact program and works to match both members and non-members with unmet social service needs to resources through a nationwide network of more than 160,000 local community-based public assistance programs.

All study participants called the Community Assistance Line between January 1, 2015 and March 1, 2016 and identified at least one unmet social need and received at least one referral to a social service organization. Program representatives followed up with all participants to confirm if their identified social service needs had been met.

Researchers then compared the medical claims data of those who reported their social service needs were met compared to a control group of people who reported their needs were not met. In looking at two years of data (one year before the referral and one year after the referral), the study found an additional 10 percent reduction in health care costs for those who were successfully connected to social services, equating to a $2,443 per person per year savings.

“These results provide evidence supporting the vital work we do in connecting our members with the resources and services they need to manage their health,” said Pamme Lyons Taylor, vice president, WellCare’s Center for CommUnity Impact. “We cannot address a person’s health problems in a vacuum; improving health depends as much on taking care of those basic human needs as it does on providing quality medical care.”

This research is the second in a series of studies being conducted by WellCare and USF on the impact addressing social determinants of health has on both a member’s health outcomes and associated health care cost savings.

To view the full study, visit Population Health Management.

Related Media: Study: Health Care Costs Reduced With Social Service Access

Media Contact:

Natalie D. Preston, USF College of Public Health

(813) 974-7714, or npreston@health.usf.edu