UConn School of Social Work Dean Salome Raheim was one of more than 150 leading social work educators from across the country who recently attended a White House briefing on the expanding role of social work in today’s changing health care environment.
The historic briefing stressed the important role social workers will play during and after the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is designed to increase the affordability and availability of quality health care for individuals throughout the U.S.
The Sept. 25 conference titled Addressing the Social Determinants of Health in a New Era: The Role of Social Work Education took place at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building and was led by Darla Spence Coffey, president of the Council on Social Work Education, a nonprofit organization representing more than 2,500 social work educators nationally. Participants were greeted by Paul Monteiro, a representative from the White House Office of Public Engagement.
The social work educators spent the day participating in a series of briefings led by representatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its various agencies including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Institutes of Health, and the Health Resources and Services Administration. The briefings covered such topics as the challenge of ensuring health care for all in light of shifting U.S. demographics; new expectations for healthcare; a dialogue on mental health; and building capacity for those in need.
“The Affordable Care Act was certainly the policy context of the briefing, but the broader context focused on addressing the vast health disparities that exist in this nation,” Raheim said. “In order to advance the health of citizens of this nation and address health disparities, the approach has to go beyond the medical and biological. It has to include the wide range of systems that impact people’s health and well-being. Do they have housing? Do they have food? An adequate income? Opportunities for education?”
“I was delighted to hear each speaker say they understood the important role social workers play in addressing these social determinants of health as we move into this new era of health care,” Raheim said. “Social work and social work education has to be very involved.”
During the briefings, federal leaders discussed their expectations of the roles social workers will play in today’s changing health care environment and the different challenges that will be presented.
Raheim, a nationally recognized leader in cultural competency training and education, said she was particularly pleased to see cultural competency recognized as one of the areas of focus.
“It’s really social workers and social work educators who brought cultural competency to federal agencies as a framework for working with diversity,” Raheim said. “Effective practice in the context of a wide range of differences, including race, ethnicity, language, culture, and other diversity factors is fundamental to addressing the social determinants of health.”
UConn’s School of Social Work prepares those seeking masters degrees in social work in a variety of areas designed to help graduates address health care issues and disparities as part of their profession. By providing extensive training and internships in casework, group work, community organizing, and social work administration and practice, the school positions graduates to have an immediate impact.
Raheim says the new demands and challenges presented by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act amplify the work social workers have been doing for decades.
“The ACA provides a window of opportunity for us to work collaboratively to get people enrolled in an insurance plan,” says Raheim. “I would not say we are more focused than before because we, as social workers, have always been focused on getting health care to people who don’t have it. We just didn’t have this mechanism.”
At UConn, Raheim says the School of Social Work is working on building stronger collaborations with other schools and colleges such as those focused on nursing, public health, medicine, and pharmacy to provide a more integrated, interprofessional approach to addressing health care issues in Connecticut and elsewhere.
“One of the purposes of the briefing was to provide us with the information and tools we need to use the opportunities that the Affordable Care Act creates,” Raheim says. “Now as leaders in social work education, it is our responsibility to go back to our schools and develop innovative strategies to increase our students’ knowledge of this new policy and its impact on practice. That is the next step.”
On a related note, Raheim mentioned that UConn alumnus Robert P. Connolly (MSW ’71) – a recipient of the National Association of Social Workers’ Pioneer award – will be visiting the School of Social Work in spring 2014 to discuss the ramifications of the ACA and how it impacts the social work profession. Connolly is considered a national leader in health care policy and long-term care. During his lengthy social work career, Connolly spent 20 years with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (formerly the Health Care Financing Administration), working to improve and enhance social work practices in nursing care facilities and long-term care programs.