A health insurer is treating spiritual care as a vital component of "whole person care."
Annette Harris has spent her life working at the intersection of health care and faith.
A social worker by training and a minister by calling, she understands that to be the best they can be, people need to be healthy in body, mind and spirit. Her mission is to shore up the spiritual piece so chronically ill people can focus on healing their mind and body.
Sometimes all it takes is someone to listen. And a little prayer.
That was the case for a woman who found herself unemployed for the first time in her adult life. Losing her job forced her to move back into her mother’s house. There, she was verbally abused and spent her days sitting in a small bedroom in the basement with no money and no transportation to go out and apply for jobs.
Harris’ voice was soothing as she spoke to the woman by phone. “Even when you are in that room alone, you are not alone,” Harris said. “That’s the time to meditate and seek the Holy Spirit.”
Harris ministers to people of all faiths and denominations as a chaplain employed by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL).
Chaplains have long been a mainstay of the care team at hospitals; they pray with the sick and comfort the family members who love them. This is believed to be the first time an insurance company has hired a chaplain to tend to spiritual needs.
“When people think of insurance companies, they don’t think of a warm hug. They think of a cold handshake,” says Judith Davis, Divisional Vice President for Government Clinical Operations at BCBSIL. “This gets us beyond the admissions and discharges and into the community where our members live.”
Adding a chaplain to the care team was Davis’ idea. Her department works with people insured through two government health insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid. They tend to be low income and have multiple health challenges. They also tend to be closely connected to a church or faith community.
Kimberly Costello, who helps coordinate health care and social services for a group of low-income African Americans in the Chicago area, says she was thrilled to have a chaplain join the care team.
“When members are struggling with health and socioeconomic issues, I find that their faith in God is what keeps them going. Having the chaplain pray with them can lift their spirits,” she says.
Harris is small of stature with an outsized personality, incredible energy and a ready smile. She and her husband founded a church in Chicago’s troubled Auburn Gresham neighborhood. That church, Anointed by Christ Apostolic Church, is now in its 10th year. She hasn’t stopped there. In recent years, she has started ministries to support women, youth, the elderly, single moms and people with mental illness. Her next goal: a prison ministry.
When Harris heard that an insurance company would be hiring a chaplain to work with members and help reconnect them to a faith community, she knew she was the woman for the job.
“I thought, ‘They need me there so I can help the members remain whole in every aspect– mentally, physically and spiritually.’”
She serves people with multiple challenges—chronic illness, depression, poverty, homelessness and more. Her job is to support them in any way she can. In some cases, that means connecting them to a nearby congregation. In others, it might mean helping them find a disability lawyer, or providing a lead on affordable housing, a job opening or local food pantry.
Or she might simply talk, listen, pray and remind people they are not alone.
It’s all in keeping with research that shows keeping people healthy requires more than medical care. For example, a study reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that low-income people with diabetes were more likely to end up in the emergency room at the end of the month. Why? Because they run out of food. The solution: Give those people $30 worth of food at the end of the month to save thousands in hospital costs.
Likewise, spiritual care is a vital component of “whole person care,” says Simone Cook, Director of Clinical Operations Support for BCBSIL. She worked with Davis to launch the chaplain program.
Medicare and Medicaid contracts require insurance companies to provide “holistic” services. In most cases, that is interpreted to mean social workers who can connect members to community services. Spiritual care is another component of the continuum of care.
“We started at social service and we’re raising the bar,” says Davis, who is working on a doctorate in health care administration.
Consider, for example, someone who has asthma but continues to smoke even though her faith tells her she shouldn’t. The care team could send that person a smoking cessation patch and hope it works. Or the care team could help reconnect her to a faith community that will reinforce the notion that she shouldn’t smoke.
Likewise, that diabetic who runs out of food at the end of the month could benefit from being connected to a church with a food pantry. And, Davis says, once the members are reconnected to a church, they are “more inclined to feel like there’s hope. And when I have hope, I can keep my body healthier.”
Tomelia Hughes who was coordinating care for a 93-year-old woman, referred her to Harris. The woman, who uses a wheelchair, had recently moved in with her daughter. Her daughter’s house does not have a ramp, so she was not able to attend church, something that had been a very important part of her life.
Because she couldn’t attend church, “she didn’t want to work on the other things,” Hughes says. “I felt like her view on life would be better if her spiritual needs were being met.”
Another woman who lost everything in a house fire that killed her sister also was referred to the chaplain. The care team had been trying to get the member to focus on her health goals. But she was too traumatized by her loss.
When the member learned that BCBSIL had employed a chaplain who could help her , she was overcome.
“I never even dreamed of a company doing this.”