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New system will connect doctors, social services

When the effects of COVID-19 and destructive wildfires hit Jackson County, groups that aid people were scrambling to connect them to health care, food, shelter, child care, counseling and other needs.

Now some groups are pioneering a new system to electronically connect people in need with health care providers and social service organizations.

Jackson Care Connect and AllCare Health, which manage Oregon Health Plan benefits locally, are paying for the licensing fees so a range of local organizations can use the shared technology system called Unite Us.

The system, which is in use in various parts of Oregon, will launch in Southern Oregon in April.

Organizations can use Unite Us to send and receive referrals, plus see whether their clients got the help they need.

“There really is no system now that connects social services organizations to each other or to medical providers. It all just relies on staff who know people to make phone calls. We saw with COVID and the terrible fires that we had that people were collecting information about organizations and sources that could help on Excel spreadsheets,” said Jennifer Lind, chief executive officer of Jackson Care Connect.

The Unite Us system will connect the different organizations, allowing them to refer people to the places that can offer the right help, she said.

“Imagine a woman walks into a local agency looking for help finding stable housing. As the caseworker meets with her, they uncover she has additional needs to address, including severe tooth pain and access to food. Unite Us will allow that caseworker to efficiently connect the client to all the services she needs, not just the one she walked in the door for,” Lind said.

Jackson Care Connect and AllCare want to better match medical clients with social services because they know issues in people’s lives often impact their health. They manage Oregon Health Plan benefits for tens of thousands of people in Jackson County, but the Unite Us system can be used to help anybody.

“When an individual or family in our community is in need, the best possible care is now always in a medical setting,” said Susan Fischer-Maki, health and education manager for AllCare.

She said more than 80% of what determines individual health is tied to factors outside the doctor’s office, including housing, food, people’s support systems and their genetics.

Rogue Retreat is one of the local organizations interested in using the Unite Us technology to connect with other groups. Its programs include the Kelly Shelter indoor shelter for homeless people, the Hope Village tiny house community and the Urban Campground, where homeless people can live in tents.

Rogue Retreat works to help homeless people transition into permanent housing and self-sufficiency.

“Homeless people need access to all kinds of services,” said Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat.

McComas said he’s interested to see how the Unite Us technology will work as local organizations start using it.

“All the organizations in the community really want to help people,” he said.

Maslow Project, a local organization that provides supplies and support to help homeless youth succeed in life, is another group interested in the technology.

“Maslow Project is hoping that Unite Us helps build a more comprehensive safety net for people in our community needing services,” said Mary Ferrell, executive director for Maslow Project.

There may be providers that find the platform to be a faster way to make direct referrals to Maslow Project or other organizations they don’t work with on a routine basis, she said.

Ferrell said she hopes a mix of sectors that haven’t historically referred to each other will join, including education, health care, enrichment programs and emergency services.

“For example, if a medical provider were to learn their patient was experiencing homelessness, they would have an opportunity to refer them to Maslow through this platform. That is not a referral we would typically get, but would welcome,” she said.

Lind said she thinks the system will help not just patients and clients, but people who work in health care and social services.

“They’re all working their hardest. They’re usually drawn to their work because they care,” she said.

But providers can get burned out when they see the same patients or clients returning because of significant unmet needs, Lind said.

As for the issue of patient and client privacy, Unite Us has far more safeguards than some of the tools typically used to make referrals, such as phone calls, emails and shared documents, said Momone Maley, community engagement manager for Unite Us.

The technology complies with privacy laws, including rigorous standards for health information, she said.

“Clients consent to have a referral sent on their behalf. They can revoke that consent at any time,” Maley said.

For more information about the Unite Us system and to join, see uniteus.com/join/.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Homeless people hang out at the Rogue Retreat urban campground in Medford. Rogue Retreat has pioneered a new referral tool to link medical professionals and social service groups to help people get help they need. Mail Tribune file photo