One by one, people bundled up in long coats, hats and scarves made their way down into the basement of the Center Church Parish House in New Haven on a Wednesday afternoon.
Some carried boxes and carts, which they filled with produce and other food items they got from the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s pantry services. While they waited, Katia Astudillo went from person to person in line, making sure they got what they needed.
And she said that went far beyond food.
“We do try to fill in the gap that most people don’t know exist,” she said.
Astudillo is a community health worker with Project Access New Haven, an organization that connects residents to health providers and social services. She specializes in a program that partners with the food pantry in order to reach residents who are at risk of poor health outcomes.
It’s only one example of what a community health worker may do. They often work alongside social workers, doctors, nurses, mental health experts and addiction treatment providers at health care offices or medical centers, community health centers and other outreach programs.
Research has shown that workers can help reduce health disparities and help underserved, high-risk patients overcome barriers to care, but they do not have a way to get certified by the state. That's why lawmakers are looking into creating a program to better support the profession.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was an estimated 470 community health workers in Connecticut as of May 2017, but experts say people may be hired under different titles while still doing the same work, and possibly getting paid less.
An October report from the state Office of Health Strategy found that a general lack of understanding about community health works, lower pay and unstable funding for these positions created problems in growing the workforce.
That’s a problem, Astudillo said, because community health workers are vital in making the larger health care system work.
“I see like we’re a glue that puts everybody together,” she said, “so I feel that there is a lot of services out there, but if people aren’t getting connected to it, if people aren’t being made aware of it and getting to the resources, then what’s the point of having it?”
A bill moving through the legislature would create a statewide certification for these workers. Researchers in the October report estimated it could cost the state about $44,663 annually to staff the program within the Department of Public Health.
Sandra Sapere, associate director for the risk reduction unit at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford, said certification could help give the profession a more defined role in the health care system and help it grow to include more workers who can provide services that other professionals cannot.
“I don’t think health care systems (clinicians) have the time to spend with a patient two hours, three hours, and talk about electricity and talk about bills and talk about language barriers and talk about day care, because they don’t have the time,” she said.
Nellie Perez, who works with Sapere, said a lot of what community health workers do is support people in social determinates of health like housing, nutrition, education and income.
In her role as an employment specialist who works with residents in treatment for mental health issues, Perez said she’s often the common link between a resident, a mental health provider and an employer.
Perez said community health workers like herself could also become the first person a resident or patient connects with because they’re a familiar face, they are connected with community resources or they speak the same language.
“It takes time before you actually get someone to trust you enough to tell you that besides this, I have that other situation going on. And being familiar with the community, we’ve been able to refer,” she said.
Correction: This story previously referred to an incorrect name of a state office . It is the Office of Health Strategy, not Office of Health Outcomes.