September 22, 2018  

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Improving the Health of Communities Affected by the Oil Spill

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Much in the news since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been disputes about the medical and economic settlements. During this time a substantial but much smaller program, the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program (GRHOP) has been quietly moving forward on improving the health and resilience of communities affected by the oil spill.

The GRHOP was developed jointly by BP and the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee as part of the Deepwater Horizon Medical Benefits Class Action Settlement, which was approved by the U.S. District Court in New Orleans on January 11, 2013 and became effective on February 12, 2014. The GRHOP is different from the larger medical settlement because it is designed primarily to improve the health of communities rather than provide benefits to individuals.  The GRHOP’s target beneficiaries are residents, especially the uninsured and medically underserved, of 17 specified coastal counties and parishes in Alabama (Mobile, Baldwin), Florida (Escambia, Santa Rosa, Walton, Okaloosa, Bay), Louisiana (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, Cameron) and Mississippi (Hancock, Harrison, Jackson).

The program focuses on primary care, mental and behavioral health, environmental health literacy (including public knowledge and clinical skills), training community health workers, and empowering community organizations. It is designed to be embedded in and complement, rather than detract from or replace, the existing efforts being undertaken by communities. Most importantly, the GRHOP has provided the clinics and communities involved with training and technical assistance to become more self-sustaining and to enhance our health infrastructure.

In Mississippi, the mental health effort is called the Mississippi – Integrated Health and Disaster Program (MIHDP). The MIHDP is part of the School of Social Work at The University of Southern Mississippi. The focus of the MIHDP has been to extend and strengthen the capacity of the Coastal Family Health Center, a health care provider in Biloxi, Miss., to serve the needs of its patients. This has involved developing a clinical model and providing “integrated care” through its medical providers and the MIHDP’s licensed social workers and graduate interns placed in the same clinical settings. Specifically, patients are provided behavioral health and medical treatment at the same time. The MIHDP has also provided graduate internship opportunities to Southern Miss social work students. Since its formation, 12 to 15 social work students each semester have completed internships focusing on integrated care.  

The MIHDP is presently supporting Coastal Family Health with an almost daily presence in eight clinics located between Moss Point and Bay St Louis. The impact of these efforts has been significant. On average the MIHDP staff meet with 350 patients per month. To date, patient progress resulting from these contacts is very encouraging particularly among those diagnosed with chronic illness (diabetes and hypertension). The MIHDP has trained more than 40 graduate level social workers in internships preparing them to implement integrated care across Mississippi.

Finally, the culture of clinical practice has been strengthened and patients are the better because of it. The impact of the MIHDP on patients could not have been done without the strong and supportive partnership that we’ve had with Coastal Family Health. This has been a historic partnership that supports patient health and strengthens the health delivery systems in south Mississippi.      

Dr. Tim Rehner is director of the Southern Miss School of Social Work and Principle Investigator of the Mississippi Integrated Health and Disaster Program. Contact him at tim.rehner@usm.edu or 601.266.4170. For more information about the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program, visit http://www.grhop.org or contact Dr. Ayanna Buckner, the Chair of the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program Coordinating Committee, at 504.289.6957. For information about the Southern Miss College of Health’s School of Social Work, visit www.usm.edu/socialwork.