At HCMC, healthy doesn't mean more costly

At a time when the phrase "reducing health care costs" typically means "slowing the growth of health costs," Hennepin County Medical Center has done something significant: It has actually lowered the cost of caring for its patients.

The heart of the medical center is its ever-expanding downtown Minneapolis headquarters, which currently sprawls over five city blocks. Hundreds of thousands of people get care from HCMC and its network of primary care facilities. Increasingly, what's taking place there has nothing to do with the conventional practice of medicine.

"When you come into our clinic we're not just going to talk to you about your health needs," said Melissa Kaufhold, a senior community health worker at HCMC's Whittier Clinic in south Minneapolis. "We want to know about all of your needs."

Kaufhold explained that it's difficult to make health care a priority for someone who lacks safe housing or food. Once those basic needs are identified and met, "Then we can really focus on the health needs," she said.

A visitor can see that approach in HCMC's downtown clinic for people with HIV-AIDS. In an examination room there, social worker Christina Larson recently met with a patient in her mid-60s.

Instead of talking about her test results, they discussed the patient's living situation, her housing and money problems. The patient was upbeat. At her feet was a bag of groceries the clinic had given her. She needed the help.

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