I’m realizing more often lately that there are many things in today’s digital world that I take for granted. Access to the internet is now considered as much a basic necessity as other utilities, and with shelter in place guidelines, people’s reliance on technology is much greater than before. However, this public health crisis has highlighted many longstanding inequities to access essential resources, in particular the digital divide. This has impacted the ability of students to continue education, patients to receive adequate healthcare, and workers to receive needed benefits.

At Community Health Councils (CHC), we have been thinking a lot about technology access and infrastructure, even before the coronavirus. This has been a critical component of our work around the design and implementation of the new consolidated online case management system for California’s human services programs, otherwise known as CalSAWS. We recently held a network call with our two healthcare coalitions, “Covering Kids and Families” and “LA Access to Health Coverage”, and other public health partners to discuss the CalSAWS project in light of current challenges to access and utilize technology systems for public benefits. Our coalition partners shared stories about the many challenges to serving communities now, including

  • The lack of internet or phone access which restricts accurate and timely information about benefits and resources to reach beneficiaries, especially those who are elderly or have language and literacy barriers;
  • Difficulty navigating public benefit websites and applications are putting a greater strain on enrollers’ and clinics’ workforce as well as causing delays in retrieving benefits. This is especially acute, given the strain on the healthcare system and consequential longer wait times on the phone and website crashes; and
  • Insufficient staff and capacity at county agencies to support telehealth and other beneficiary needs.

Even with all the technological advancements made to date, if historically underinvested communities cannot access their most basic needs in an increasingly digital world, we will only continue to support and expand inequities that underly longstanding health disparities.

Of course, these are not new challenges and we have long been fighting for equitable access to public health benefits, but the challenges and concerns raised on our call underscore the urgency needed to fix these issues now. This is particularly dire as 1.5 to 3 million people are anticipated to apply for Medi-Cal by the end of this month alone.

As the current public health emergency continues, the common threads of inequities will only increase. Even as many federal, state, and local policies and initiatives are passed to provide communities with much-needed relief, we still see these policies fall short to provide support and protections for everyone. We must continue to shine a light on these gaps, sharing our stories and holding decisionmakers accountable, in order to break down the systemic barriers that leave our most vulnerable communities behind.

The mission of CHC is to collectively build equitable systems. Join us in our series of calls throughout April and May where we will further dissect the challenges and determine potential strategies to fix the policies and systems that are exacerbating inequitable health outcomes in our communities. Please register to join our next call this Friday, April 24th, which will focus on the latest healthcare policy updates and the new or ongoing challenges to access vital healthcare services. Stay tuned for more updates as CHC and our partners continue to build a more equitable healthcare system for all.

Grace Song, MPH

Policy Analyst