1: Addressing Mental Health Disparities Among Communities of Color Through Affordable Internet Access
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the existing disparities in mental health care access, particularly among communities of color. As telehealth services become increasingly prevalent, providing up to 60% of mental health care, these disparities are only further accentuated. Unfortunately, only 68-70% of communities of color have access to reliable and affordable internet services, putting crucial mental health care out of reach for too many.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports a higher prevalence of serious considerations of suicide and adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms among Black, non-Hispanic individuals compared to other groups. This is especially concerning given the already existing access gaps to treatment, with 15% of Black, non-Hispanic respondents seriously thinking about suicide in the past 30 days, compared to 8% of White individuals and 10.7% of all other respondents.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a federal benefit that provides individuals with connectable devices and up to $30/month for their internet bill. Despite the program’s potential to bridge the digital divide, only 25% of the 51.6 million eligible households have enrolled. Medicaid patients are automatically eligible for the ACP, yet over 86% remain unenrolled.
This is where organizations like Link Health come in. By leveraging the health sector, Link Health connects low-income patients, many of whom are marginalized and more likely to be people of color, to the ACP. By addressing the underlying barriers to telehealth, such as lack of affordable internet access, Link Health is working to improve mental health outcomes for vulnerable communities.
Improving access to affordable internet through programs like the ACP is essential in addressing mental health disparities among communities of color. However, simply making the program available is not enough. Creative strategies, such as utilizing trusted health care workers and facilities to increase enrollment, are necessary to ensure that all eligible individuals have access to this crucial resource.
It is time for us to acknowledge that health and well-being are not solely within the purview of the health system. By improving access to affordable internet, we can make timely and crucial mental health services more accessible to communities of color and begin to address the inequities that exist within our healthcare system.
2: Closing the Digital Divide: The Role of Healthcare in Connecting Patients to the Affordable Connectivity Program
In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, access to the internet has become a necessity for many daily activities. Whether it be for remote learning, telehealth, or simply staying connected with loved ones, the internet has become an indispensable tool for millions of people. Yet, despite its significance, not everyone has access to the internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently reported that 12.9 million American households have enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a national initiative aimed at providing low-cost internet access to eligible households. While this is a step in the right direction, there are still 38 million eligible American households who have yet to enroll in the program.
In an era where internet access is considered a basic human right, healthcare professionals have a critical role to play in bridging the digital divide and linking patients with the ACP. Consider these sobering statistics: almost one in four Americans do not have a reliable home internet connection, and nearly 40% of adults over 65 do not own a smartphone. The disparities in internet access are even more pronounced in communities of color, where only 58% of Black Americans and 57% of Hispanic Americans own a computer, compared to 82% of White Americans.
Fortunately, there are organizations that are working to close the digital divide, and healthcare providers can play an instrumental role in their efforts. Link Health, for example, is a healthcare-focused initiative that helps enroll low-income patients into the ACP program. Launched at Massachusetts General Hospital in November 2022, Link Health provides free resources for healthcare providers to enroll patients, including in-person sign-up events, informational posters and handouts for waiting areas, and incorporating ACP enrollment information into discharge paperwork.
With less than 25% of eligible households enrolled in the ACP, there is still much work to be done to connect the dots and bridge the digital divide. Healthcare providers can play a critical role in this effort by leveraging their trusted relationships with patients and utilizing free resources like Link Health to enroll eligible patients in the ACP. By working together, we can help ensure that every patient has access to the internet and all the benefits that come with it.
3: Link Health Boston Pilot Program
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the use of telehealth, but the digital divide poses a threat to ensuring equal access to healthcare for all Americans. Despite widespread internet usage, 15-24% of the population lacks broadband connection. The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law offers a solution with the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides a monthly subsidy of $30 and a one-time $100 subsidy for computer equipment. However, only 40% of households are eligible and only 13% of eligible Medicaid patients are enrolled.
Enter Link Health, a new organization that leverages the healthcare sector to connect patients to the ACP and bridge the digital divide in healthcare. By utilizing a get-out-the-vote framework and enrolling patients in healthcare settings, Link Health aims to reach the hard-to-reach households that traditional outreach methods fail to reach.
Link Health is launching a pilot in Boston, targeting the roughly 40,000 households without internet access. By partnering with community health centers and utilizing their pre-existing network of healthcare worker volunteers, Link Health estimates being able to enroll 5,000 to 7,500 households. The combination of in-person outreach and passive material deployment, along with the trust healthcare providers hold in their communities, is expected to result in successful enrollment.
Closing the digital divide in healthcare is critical to ensuring equal access to care, and Link Health is poised to play a significant role in making this a reality. With early results from the Boston pilot, Link Health has the potential to expand its reach and drive increased engagement, ultimately benefiting vulnerable populations and closing the healthcare access gap.