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At Aunt Bertha, Standards Matter and We’re Pushing Them Forward

November 18, 2019 in Data, Partners, Technology

In every industry, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is important. In the space that Aunt Bertha works in – enabling community organizations, businesses, and Seekers (those who are seeking assistance) to connect with each other – it’s especially critical. Information on what help is needed and who needs it must flow efficiently to enable timely assistance without errors and unnecessary extra steps.

That’s why our company cares so much about interoperability, a convoluted word for a very simple concept: making sure that data systems can speak with each other.

Imagine if mobile phones from different wireless companies such as AT&T or Verizon couldn’t send data or text messages to each other without additional third-party software. Or that you had to use different types of paid web browsers to view web pages from different industries because they were created with incompatible web-design languages.

When Internet of Things devices such as Wi-Fi light bulbs and smart doorbells started becoming available, a lack of interoperability delayed their popularity; for a while many products didn’t work together and made home installation a huge pain. More significantly, the healthcare industry suffered for years while expecting the U.S. government to drive collaboration and interoperability standards, making the adoption of electronic health records more costly and complicated for everyone.

As early as 2013 Aunt Bertha realized that our work requires an open taxonomy, or names and definitions, to make systems across different areas such as education, government, and healthcare communicate without problems.

Aunt Bertha founder and CEO Erine Gray says that such a thing that wasn’t proprietary didn’t exist at the time, requiring the company to take the lead on creating a sensible taxonomy for classifying social services. “We were looking for a taxonomy that was multi-faceted,” Gray said, “meaning a person has attributes of themselves (a disease, age, gender) and a service has attributes as well (food pantry, soup kitchen, help find housing). So we tag our programs with two categories: ‘Who it’s for’ and ‘what the service is.’ “

Gray says the company wanted to keep this taxonomy open and free to the public; Aunt Bertha published it with a Creative Commons ShareAlike license.

Aunt Bertha’s vice president of strategic partnerships, Jaffer Traish, says that this is in line with Aunt Bertha’s open platform and person-driven approach. With this classification approach, “The person owns the referral history and data, the person chooses who to share it with, the person can take charge of finding help as well,” Traish said.

This is counter to the approach taken by data-collecting companies that have a vested interest in keeping user data closed off to competitors and even their own users.

Jaffer Traish photo

Jaffer Traish, VP of partnerships at Aunt Bertha

Traish said that in the medical industry, “proprietary systems were innovative, though the companies that built them lacked any incentive to collaborate on external data exchange, creating large silos. Only recently are national identifiers for people, service price transparency, and consumer-driven standards beginning to address consumer demand.”

Aunt Bertha is not alone in its mission to promote interoperability in these systems. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) is leading a national initiative to create standards for a technical framework of hardware, software, and information in healthcare, for instance.

Here are some other ways Aunt Bertha is promoting standards in the social-care space that it works in:

  •  Aunt Bertha proposed a human-services taxonomy to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), which did not have a way to classify social-care services. HL7 is a not-for-profit standards organization used in 50 countries by governments as well as healthcare organizations.
  •  Aunt Bertha proposed eligibility rules standards to HL7 FHIR to serve up social-care services based on existing information available in systems such as electronic medical records.
  • Promoting the idea that these standards should reach across all industries that touch social services, not just healthcare, with the goal of making information-exchange systems less costly and faster to develop.

Portability of Social-Care Referrals

We are working on standards that support referral details being portable.  Because social referral details should be available to many helpers, including within and outside healthcare, we are working with electronic health record leaders such as Cerner and Epic to make social-care data system agnostic. Says Traish, “Only allowing social-care data to persist in a healthcare vendor platform would be harmful to communities and to seekers. We have their support for standards that work outside of healthcare; that is key.”

The ONC’s U.S. Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI) and FHIR do not support social-care data fully, but the company feels they are good efforts to improve standards. We think the FHIR standard has enough traction and a vibrant governing body to move the space forward, and that’s why we believe it’s the right channel for housing these standards.

Future of Interoperability and Social Care

Aunt Bertha will continue to work to ensure that such data will be shareable across schools, hospitals, nonprofits, and other organizations, removing traditional barriers that depend on proprietary external systems.

“When people are struggling — whether it be a financial crisis or a family crisis, they need a safe, anonymous way of finding help,” said Traish. “And the first step is understanding what’s out there through our search. That’s why we don’t require a login to search and find services: to give people the security of anonymity. This is one of our core beliefs and I believe it differentiates us.

“Our interoperability strategy puts the individual as the owner of their own referral history and the decision to share is theirs,” he said. 

10 Years Later, McAllen’s Healthcare Spending Has Declined

September 25, 2019 in Medicare

By Ellen Chang, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

A town with a population of 143,433 based on the latest census estimates, McAllen gained notoriety in 2009 when Atul Gawande, a surgeon, chronicled the healthcare costs of the 21st largest city in Texas.

In his 2009 article for the New Yorker called “The Cost Conundrum,” Gawande found that the border town was one of the most expensive places to receive healthcare despite being located in Hidalgo County, an area that reports some of the lowest household income in the U.S.

McAllen spent $15,000 per Medicare enrollee in 2006, an amount that was nearly the national average. On the other hand, the income per capita was extremely low at $12,000. 

Gawande set out to determine why Medicare was spending $3,000 more than what each person earned per year on average. 

McAllen, Texas

McAllen, Texas, is pictured in this photo, “Dusk,” by Reil, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It wasn’t just that the town had a high poverty rate because the residents didn’t earn much money or that many had heart disease or diabetes; McAllen also did not deliver better health care, even though it spent more money, the article states.

Doctors were ordering unnecessary tests which often led to surgeries that cost significantly more. For instance, a gallbladder surgery nets an additional $700 for a doctor or hospital. In some instances, doctors said they could have waited for a patient to change his/her diet to a low-fat one, causing the pain to subside and avoiding a surgery altogether.

Symptoms such as chest pain were not chalked up to stress and a bad diet anymore. In previous decades, an EKG would rule out anything more serious. Back in 2006 in McAllen and in many other cities, it led to a round of tests – a stress test, an echocardiogram, a mobile Holter monitor, and probably a cardiac catheterization, the article reported.

After examining commercial insurance data, Gawande discovered that patients in McAllen received a lot more diagnostic testing and hospital care, which often led to additional surgeries and home care. The care ranged from treatments for minor ailments such as carpal-tunnel syndrome to procedures for more serious diseases such as cardiac-bypass operations.

“The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine,” he wrote.

The extra care and excessive testing did not necessarily mean that patients lived longer, healthier lives. “Nearly 30 percent of Medicare’s costs could be saved without negatively affecting health outcomes if spending in high- and medium-cost areas could be reduced to the level in low-cost areas,” said Peter Orszag, who was budget director under President Barack Obama when the article was published.

Gawande had compared McAllen’s overspending on its patients to people in El Paso, a city with similar demographics in terms of health and income. But, El Paso spent only half the per-capita Medicare costs and their results mirrored McAllen’s patients or were better in some instances.

McAllen’s residents received surgery 40 percent more of the time compared to people in El Paso and spending on their home health care was five times higher, according to the article.

In 2015, Gawande returned to McAllen.

Since his initial story that found that doctors were being rewarded for extra tests because they owned shares in facilities such as surgery, imaging, home healthcare and for-profit hospitals, reform had occurred between 2009 and 2012. Gawande found that McAllen was spending $3,000 less for each Medicare patient, a total savings of nearly $500 million by the end of 2014. Doctors were also spending more time diagnosing patients instead of immediately sending them to take another diagnostic test.

Hospital visits declined by 10 percent in that time period while home healthcare costs dipped by almost 40 percent. Even ambulance rides declined by nearly 40 percent.

In the aftermath of the original article, investigations took place and discovered that some doctors weren’t just ordering one or two extra tests to reassure patients. Federal prosecutions found cases of extreme fraud and seven doctors wound up agreeing to pay $28 million in a settlement case because they allegedly took kickbacks for referring their own patients for specialty medical services.

A Brookings Institution article by Kavita Patel and Frank McStay found that one major factor in medical costs is that doctors do not always know all the pricing, such as how expensive home healthcare is. Another factor is that local doctors can promote better healthcare. McAllen’s primary care doctors who “were simply practicing good by-the-book medicine” were able to shift away from the system that encouraged extra testing and spending.

Changes are being made elsewhere in the country with 20 percent of Medicare payments being directed to doctors who are part of alternative-payment programs or companies such as Wal-Mart that now use bundled payment for surgeries and expensive procedures.

Too many diseases and illnesses are being  overdiagnosed and overtreated, Gawande concluded. A renewed focus on pervasive ailments such as high blood pressure or diabetes can better help patients.

“The medical system had done what it so often does: performed tests, unnecessarily, to reveal problems that aren’t quite problems to then be fixed, unnecessarily, at great expense and no little risk,” he wrote. “An entire health-care system has been devoted to this game. Yet we’re finally seeing evidence that the system can change — even in the most expensive places for health care in the country.”

Ellen Chang is a freelance journalist who is based in Houston and writes for TheStreet and U.S. News & World Report. Chang focuses her articles on stocks, entrepreneurs, personal finance, energy and cybersecurity. Her byline has appeared in national business publications, including USA Today, CBS News, Yahoo Finance and MSN Money. She is a proud graduate of Purdue University and a lover of random acts of kindness, volunteering and dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter @ellenychang and Instagram @ellenyinchang.

Connecting Vulnerable Seniors to Social Services With Voice-Assisted Search

September 23, 2019 in Announcements

alexa-echo

AARP Foundation and Aunt Bertha have launched voice-assisted search for local social services to be used by seniors in affordable housing communities in Northwest Baltimore.

In 2018, AARP Foundation piloted an innovative program with Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), a Baltimore-based organization that helps older residents remain independent in their homes. Together, they distributed Amazon Echo devices to seniors in affordable housing communities in Baltimore, with the aim of fighting social isolation with voice-activated technology (in this case, the built-in Alexa voice assistant). Over the course of one year, they gathered user feedback to develop customized “skills” for residents, such as community reminders and alerts — when the mail has arrived, what’s on the dinner menu, and so on. Residents are also able to place voice-assisted queries with the devices. The successful pilot culminated in the 2019 launch of AARP Foundation Connect2Affect Connected Communities™, through which nearly 300 residents across CHAI’S Weinberg Village senior living communities in Northwest Baltimore will be using Alexa-capable devices.

The new Alexa skill — powered by Aunt Bertha, a social services software platform — enables vulnerable seniors to easily gather information about free and reduced-cost assistance in their community, such as food pantries, transportation, tax preparation and more. Voice-assisted search not only reduces physical and technological barriers to navigating social services for seniors but emotional ones as well, allowing them to reach out for help in the comfort of their homes, without fear or stigma.

Interactive devices in the homes of seniors create a form of engagement that helps reduce the sense of social isolation through dialogue with a machine. However, the presence of these devices, in and of themselves, cannot combat social isolation entirely. The true innovation that AARP Foundation is driving toward is using these devices as a means, not an end, to connect seniors to their real-life communities. Armed with the information to take the first step, vulnerable seniors will be better positioned to receive fellowship and help from people in their community who want to serve them.

Get the Aunt Bertha Skill on Amazon

About Aunt Bertha
Our mission is to connect all people in need and the programs that serve them (with dignity and ease). We’re the largest network of free and reduced-cost social assistance in every ZIP Code across the US, including federal, state, county, municipal, and local programs in the biggest cities and smallest towns. When we started out in 2010, we defined a new way for people to access social services that empowered them to own their search. Users simply enter their ZIP Code into our platform, unlocking a wide breadth of free and reduced-cost assistance in their community, such as food, housing, financial and legal help, health services, and more. We provide free eligibility, intake, and reporting tools for deep engagement to Community Organizations. When you receive people in need from our platform, you’ll spend less time qualifying and more time helping.

About AARP Foundation
AARP Foundation works to end senior poverty by helping vulnerable older adults build economic opportunity and social connectedness. As AARP’s charitable affiliate, we serve AARP members and nonmembers alike. Bolstered by vigorous legal advocacy, we spark bold, innovative solutions that foster resilience, strengthen communities and restore hope.

AARP Foundation. For a future without senior poverty.

How Widespread is College Student Food and Housing Insecurity?

September 19, 2019 in Data, Education

By Matt Smith, Aunt Bertha Policy Analyst

Getting to college is a huge challenge, but for many students, having the basics to get by once they’re attending school is a significant barrier. Specifically, food and housing insecurity affects millions of college students every year. Food insecurity is a disruption of normal eating patterns resulting from a lack of money or other resources, and housing insecurity is used as an umbrella term that captures challenges ranging from an inability to pay rent to homelessness.

Although there is not a nationally representative study examining food and housing insecurity among college students, multiple studies do provide insight into the issue. One of the largest national surveys is conducted regularly by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Nearly 86,000 college students participated in the study last fall from 123 different two- and four-year institutions. Their survey found that 45 percent of respondents were food insecure in the last 30 days, 56 percent were housing insecure in the previous year, and an astounding 17 percent were homeless in the previous year. However, this high rate of homelessness among college students is partly a result of a broader definition of homelessness used by the Hope Center survey. For instance, only 5 percent of community-college students and 2 percent of college students at four-year institutions self-identify as being homeless. The other college students who were counted as homeless were identified as such based on their responses to the Hope Center survey. The vast majority of the non-self-identified homeless students were categorized this way because they temporarily lived with a friend or a relative. 

The Hope Center survey further disaggregates their findings between community colleges and four-year institutions. For instance, 60 percent of students at two-year institutions were identified as housing insecure compared to 48 percent of students at four-year institutions. The higher prevalence of insecurity among students at two-year institutions remains consistent across the other measures of the survey as well. The Hope Center survey identified about 47 percent of students at two-year institutions and 42 percent of students at four-year institutions as food insecure, about a 5 percent difference. Below is a breakdown of the measure of food security by two- and four-year institutions.  

Food Security Among Survey Respondents from Two and Four-Year Colleges

College Food Security chart

Source: College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report

The Hope Center survey provides some troubling insights into the challenges facing many college students. However, these findings cannot be extrapolated beyond this sample and applied to the college student population at large. Although the challenges identified in this survey affect college students across the nation, the extent of food and housing insecurity varies across regions. And while being a student may make someone more vulnerable to these issues, local economic conditions and other demographic factors will also drive these measures in unique ways from campus to campus. 

In a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers estimated that 32.9 percent of U.S. college students experienced food insecurity. However, most of the universities included in the analysis were four-year, urban based public institutions. Based on what we know from the Hope Center survey, we may expect this estimate to be lower than the true proportion of food-insecure college students specifically because of the higher percentage of food insecure students at two-year institutions. The researchers go further to say that their analysis also lacked variation in “rural and small town post-secondary education settings, Hispanic serving institutions, historically black colleges and universities,…and for-profit universities.” Although the estimate may be a conservative one, the findings from this research are consistent with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of food insecurity on college campuses. In their research, the percentage of food insecure college students ranged from 9 percent to 50 percent, but 22 of the 31 studies that examined the issue estimated college student food insecurity to be above 30 percent

Another recent survey of 34 two- and four-year institutions across 12 states found similarly high levels of housing insecurity. The research found that 53 percent of students at two-year institutions and 46 percent of students at four-year institutions were housing insecure. Unsurprisingly, the survey also found that almost two-thirds of food insecure college students experienced some form of housing insecurity. The high degree of correlation between food and housing insecurity begins to conjure an image of an exceptionally vulnerable student population; a population that may be regularly skipping meals to pay rent or may be a hospital bill away from eviction. Although this survey is not nationally representative of the entire college student population, this high rate of food and housing insecurity is consistent across many of the most robust studies on college housing and food insecurity.

Driving Factors

Many of the factors that drive college student housing and food insecurity are the same factors that drive food insecurity and housing insecurity for the population at large, like low income, under employment, and disability. 

However, there are also unique factors that make the population of college students exceedingly vulnerable to food and housing insecurity. First is the rising cost of education. Over the last 30 years, the net cost (taking into consideration grant aid and tax benefits) of attending a four-year public college has nearly doubled from roughly $8,000 to $15,000. During the same period, the net cost of attending a two-year institution increased from $6,800 to $8,000. While the costs of education continue to increase the financial burden on students and their families, federal grants cover a diminishing percentage of the overall costs of obtaining a degree. For example, roughly 40 years ago, a Pell Grant would cover 50 percent of the full costs of in-state tuition, fees, room, and board at public two-year colleges. Today, that proportion has dipped to just 37 percent.

However troubling the rising cost of education is for families across the country, this only explains in part the high proportion of college students experiencing housing and food insecurity. As the real cost of higher education has increased, so has the proportion of low-income students entering college. The graph below shows the percentage of graduating high school students entering college by income status. 

College enrollment chart

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics, Percentage of recent high school completers enrolled in college, by income level: 1975 through 2016, graphic by Aunt Bertha

Over the same period that the cost of education at a four-year institution has doubled, the proportion of low-income high school graduates entering college has increased from under 45 percent in 1990 to more than 67 percent in 2016. In fact, we can see that the line representing low-income student enrollment in higher education actually surpasses the proportion of middle-income students enrolling in higher education. Although the difference between the percentage of low-income students entering college is not yet statistically different from the percentage of middle-income students entering college, the trend illustrates a rapid expansion in the number of low-income students that colleges are serving. 

Challenges

One of the primary ways the U.S. government fights food insecurity is through the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP). In fiscal year 2017, the government spent $68 billion on SNAP, and it remains the largest food-assistance program in the country. SNAP households receive about $253 per month on average, or about $1.40 per person per meal. Although SNAP likely will not cover the full cost of a typical food budget, the additional support can be critical for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet month to month. At the same time, college students face eligibility restrictions that often prevent them from obtaining SNAP benefits. The Food Stamp Amendments of 1980 generally prevent the “traditional” college student, who may have a low-income while in college but ostensibly receives financial support from their parents, from receiving SNAP benefits. There are a number of exceptions to these restrictions, notably for parents and those who are disabled; however the majority of college students who are eligible for SNAP do not receive the benefit. In a review conducted by the GAO, the agency found that among potentially SNAP eligible low-income college students with one additional risk factor for food insecurity, 57 percent were not enrolled in SNAP.

College SNAP chart

Source:United States Government Accountability Office, Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits, graphic by Aunt Bertha

 Although SNAP eligibility restrictions make many students ineligible for the benefit, there are nearly 2 million likely eligible college students who are not receiving SNAP. This discrepancy may be caused by a lack of awareness of the program, confusion around student eligibility, the stigma of receiving public benefits, or some combination of these factors. Federal and state governments, as well as colleges themselves, will need to respond to this challenge through thoughtful legislation and meaningful investments. 

Policy and Campus Action

Fortunately, some states and universities have begun to address these issues directly. In 2017, California passed legislation to clarify student eligibility requirements for SNAP. In order to address the under-utilization of SNAP by college students, this bill requires the Student Aid Commission to notify recipients of state higher education grants if they qualify for SNAP. This legislation also requires the state and county human service agencies to maintain updated lists of specific exemptions to SNAP student eligibility restrictions, thus reducing much of the confusion surrounding student SNAP eligibility. In similar fashion, Illinois passed a bill in 2018 that would help clarify some of the student exemptions to SNAP, in addition to better aligning federal SNAP benefits with need-based financial aid for part-time students.

We are also seeing an expansion in the number of on campus food pantries. Just last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that every New York State public college at the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems would have a food pantry or equivalent located on campus. This will require only a $1 million investment from the state to ensure all 88 campuses are properly resourced, but it is an important signal that state government and college campuses are taking the issue of food insecurity seriously.

In addition, many colleges are taking it upon themselves to address the growing concern over student housing and food insecurity. Researchers from the GAO found that 8 of the 14 campuses they contacted indicated that they were coordinating student access to social programs or systematically screening for student eligibility for SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The report went on to describe three colleges that were purchasing software programs to act as a centralized referral hub for student services. These referral platforms would allow college faculty and staff to share information on students and make referrals to student services. To quote directly from the report, “at a college we visited that is using such software, officials said that a professor might note in the centralized portal that an at-risk student was either failing or not attending a class, and that student would be flagged in the portal to notify academic advisors, counselors, and other college staff who can direct the student to the on-campus resources they may need, such as the food pantry or help in completing a SNAP application.” Although this level of service navigation and intervention may not be traditionally in the scope of what colleges do, this may be what is necessary to support this particularly vulnerable student population.

 In fact, Aunt Bertha is already being used by a number of forward-thinking colleges to connect students to resources, with thousands of students using the platform to find services near them. Below are searches on the Aunt Bertha platform made by college students or care managers on behalf of college students organized by search category.

Aunt Bertha college search chart

Source: Aunt Bertha data

We can see that the prevalence of food and housing needs among students is also reflected in the student searches in Aunt Bertha. Housing is by far their top-searched need and food is the next-most-searched need. By using Aunt Bertha to connect to services, whether it be subsidized housing or SNAP benefits, thousands of college students are accessing programs that will help them with what is clearly a pervasive need across campuses.   

Conclusion

As the cost of education increases and financial aid covers a diminishing share of the costs of obtaining a degree, many students are struggling to meet some of their most basic needs. At the same time, a higher proportion of low-income students are entering college, and these institutions are oftentimes unprepared to help. Although food and housing insecurity vary by campus and region, the research clearly shows there is a large and systemic problem. Conservatively, we might estimate that 1 in 3 college students is food insecure and maybe as many as half of all students are housing insecure. 

These problems can be exacerbated by a policy regime that often excludes college students from benefits based on an outdated understanding of who is enrolling in higher education. If we want a higher education system built to meet the needs of the diverse student population currently enrolled, various levels of government and two- and four-year institutions will need to make strategic investments in how they support students experiencing food and housing insecurity. States such as California and New York have begun aligning state policy and making thoughtful investments in college campuses to meet the needs of food insecure students, but these issues affect students nationwide and will require a broader commitment and investment from across government and higher education. 

Matt Smith is a policy analyst at Aunt Bertha who has completed the government service hat-trick (having worked for federal, state, and local government). Prior to writing for this blog, Matt enjoyed a simple life of relative anonymity, hiking his dog Eli on the trails surrounding Austin, Texas.

Improving Pathways to Help With a New Look

September 10, 2019 in Announcements

People in need who land on our site are usually in tough circumstances. Sometimes, they’re going through the hardest moment of their lives. Our team has thought very hard about how to make their search experience as simple, fast, and relevant as possible.

When someone accepts that he/she needs help and takes the steps to do something about it, that’s a transformative moment. Our responsibility at Aunt Bertha is to build on that momentum by providing pathways to help, and ultimately, to empowerment. It’s important that the journey is direct, without frustration or hindrances. The last thing someone needs, after taking the important step to get help, is the feeling that the path is too hard or that help isn’t there.

Each program listed in our network is a pathway to help, displaying useful information that helps someone in need determine very quickly whether to take the next steps. The way that this information is displayed can mean the difference between whether someone in need moves forward or not.

We recently redesigned our program cards, where information such as location, hours of operation, services provided, and more, are available. The goal of the redesign was to make it even easier for our users to evaluate a program and connect within seconds. Here are some of the improved features:

program-card

• The user path progresses from left to right, consuming program information and ending with taking a next step;
• The teal call-to-action button is persistent and always visible no matter what section of the program card you’re in;
• Smart organization displays the most important program information in one view;
• A simple description of the program provider and services offered is surfaced prominently at the top of the card so that you know right away what the program is about;
• The full breadth of a program’s offering is listed in both Main Services and Other Services tags so that a program is not passed over;
• Program capacity and eligibility details are immediately visible upon expanding the card; and
• Additional tools to get more details, save programs, send to a friend, record notes, and update program information are all in one place.

custom-CTAs

We also consider the preferred contact method specified by program providers with a customized call-to-action button in each program card. This way, we only send over referrals in the way that’s most convenient to the receiver. With our program card redesign, we hope that taking the next steps to getting help will be even easier, faster, and simpler.

How to Show Support on Women’s Equality Day

August 26, 2019 in History

By Ellen Chang, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

Women have many reasons to celebrate on Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day: pay gaps have shrunk, more females are leading companies as CEOs, and dozens of women have run successfully for political office at the national level.

For over four decades, Congress has celebrated Women’s Equality Day to commemorate women gaining the right to vote, which was certified in 1920 by the passage of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

U.S. Representative Bella Abzug of New York first proposed the passage of Women’s Equity Day in 1971 and two years later the law was ratified.

Women faced many hardships during the past several decades, especially attaining employment, being able to rent or buy a house independently or serving in the military. Until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 was passed, women could lose their jobs merely for being pregnant. Even running in the Boston Marathon was prohibited until 1972 when women were officially acknowledged.

Until the Equal Opportunity Commission defined the term sexual harassment in 1980, women had few options in the workplace. While women still face severe and serious consequences and backlash if they report harassment, the #metoo movement has highlighted the pervasiveness of the problem and more women have spoken publicly about their experiences.  

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who has represented the 141st District in Texas since 1972, and Diana Martinez Alexander, who is running for Harris County Commissioner, attend a Texas Democratic Women’s 99th-anniversary celebration of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 29, 2019. Photo by: Ellen Chang

In the past few decades, women have attained more financial freedom such as being able to have a credit card, rent or buy a home, or take out business loans.

Women were denied access to credit and were unable to apply and receive a credit card in the 1970s. The discriminatory trend changed in 1974 with the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) when made it unlawful for creditors to “discriminate against any applicant, with respect to any aspect of a credit transaction, on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or marital status.”

Until then women could only obtain credit cards if they were married and their husbands agreed to cosign  for their applications. Women who were single, widowed, or divorced faced many challenges and often had to bring a male family member such as their father to cosign for them. Men did not face the same discrimination and were not denied access to credit or loans based on their gender. 

Women received greater access to credit when the First Women’s Bank in Manhattan was established in April 1975. The bank’s CEO was Judy Hendren Mello and it was the first bank that was operated by women solely for female clients.

Women had a difficult time establishing credit history during that decade since the usage of credit cards is a helpful tool for consumers to build their credit and also increase credit scores.

Access to credit now is equitable and women are not asked extremely personal questions that were posed in the 1970s, nor do they need their husbands to cosign a credit card application.

Employers now recognize that having a diverse workforce improves results. Studies have demonstrated that female portfolio money managers outperform their male counterparts. Despite these advances, women are still only earning 78 cents for every dollar that a man receives and a low percentage of women receive funding from venture capitalists for their startups.

One conference for investment professionals, Wealth/Stack, allows female attendees to attend at 78 percent of the current registration fee to signify the pay gap between men and women.

Diana Martinez Alexander, who is an educational diagnostician at a Houston area school district and is running for a county commissioner’s seat in Harris county, said she gives back to her community by providing information about voting and local civic issues.

It helps everyone to have an informed, activated community and as an organizer and now candidate, I strive to redouble my efforts for outreach and canvassing,” she said. “It is our duty to use our voices and using a vote to be part of the body politic. Go door to door, make that phone call and write those postcards. It all matters.”  

Here is how you can support and help advance women at work and at home throughout the year:

  • Support female political candidates by donating to their campaigns or blockwalking for them;
  • Register people to vote;
  • Offer mandatory maternity and paternity leave if you run a business;
  • Make gender diversity a priority at your company ;
  • State your gender pay gap and how the company’s plans to shrink the difference;
  • Mentor female high school and college students and new or entry-level employees ;
  • Invite women to speak at panels; avoid speaking at a panel or conference where women are underrepresented;
  • Provide remote or virtual working;
  • Have a strong policy against sexual harassment and enforce your policy;
  • Provide additional training to all employees;
  • Promote more women to leadership roles and boards of directors; and
  • Provide equity to microlenders, angel funds, or private-equity funds that focus on female entrepreneurs.

Ellen Chang is a freelance journalist who is based in Houston and writes for TheStreet and U.S. News & World Report. Chang focuses her articles on stocks, entrepreneurs, personal finance, energy and cybersecurity. Her byline has appeared in national business publications, including USA Today, CBS News, Yahoo Finance and MSN Money. She is a proud graduate of Purdue University and a lover of random acts of kindness, volunteering and dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter @ellenychang and Instagram @ellenyinchang.

How to Keep Exercising When It’s Too Hot Outside

August 21, 2019 in Fitness

By Matthew Price, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

Do the dog days of summer have you thinking it’s too hot to work out? There are several options available to keep your fitness routine going while keeping cool. The following dozen ideas can help you maintain an exercise routine when the summer heat gets to be too much if you absolutely must brave the outdoor heat. 

Time your workout. You don’t want to go for a run in the absolute worst heat of the day. Going for an early-morning run or timing your exercise for early or late in the day avoids the worst of the heat. According to the Cleveland Clinic, exercising in the morning or evening can help you stay fit while avoiding some potential heat dangers. James Graham, ACE Certified Personal Trainer based in Running Springs, CA, recommends an early-morning run or bike ride when late-day temperatures are expected to rise. “The sunrise provides great inspiration and the activity a powerful kick-start to your day,” Graham said. 

Photo: Omar L. Gallaga

Try precooling. Shape Magazine recommends taking a cold shower or downing an icy drink prior to your hot weather workout. This has shown improved performance in some laboratory settings. And be sure to stay hydrated throughout your workout; with even more hydration lost through sweat, it’s important to drink plenty of water during a workout in the warm weather. Graham suggests drinking 16-24 ounces of water before exercise and at least 6-8 ounces every 30 minutes while active. 

Stay in the shade, suggests the veterans’ health site at myhealth.va.gov. The site also recommends drinking plenty of water and protecting your skin with sunscreen, a light-colored, loose-fitting long-sleeve shirt, and a cap. 

But seriously, wear a cap, preferably soaked. Swedish triathlete Annie Thorén, at Redbull.com would take that cap a little further. “A good tip is to use a cap that you soak in water every so often, to keep the head as cool as possible,” she says at the site, indicating that the head is the most important body part to keep cool.

But first, check the weather. The National Institute on Aging recommends checking the weather forecast. If it seems too hot to trot, the Institute recommends exercising online with Go4Life videos found at go4life.nia.nih.gov/workout-videos/. You can also try indoor activities such as walking at a local shopping mall or grocery store, or visiting a local recreation center for a swim. “For cardiovascular health, the goal is to achieve and maintain an active heart rate for 20-30 minutes, five days a week,” Graham said. “During hot summer months, hit the local community pool. Aerobic water-based exercise will not only keep you cool, the added resistance will engage more muscle.” Check your local YMCA for programs.

You can stay home. Don’t want to leave the house? The National Institute of Health recommends putting your inside stairs to good use with a few trips up and down to get your exercise in. Graham also recommends resistance bands, available for $5-$15,  and body weight exercise for indoor workouts. 

Go on strike. According to the Mayo Clinic, bowling can burn around 275 calories per hour, and mdmag.com reports three games of bowling will net more than 3,000 steps taken for the average bowler. 

Bottle it up. According to Livestrong.coma full 16-ounce water bottle weighs about a pound, and is appropriate to use in place of dumbbells for exercises including arm curls and arm overhead extensions. A higher number of reps can be used if this is too light. The site also recommends additional exercises with a gallon jug to provide greater resistance during strength-training exercises. 

Bring a buddy. The National Institute of Health encourages exercising with a friend or family member to help with motivation. An extra benefit in the heat is an extra pair of eyes in case of signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Graham says to cease exercise immediately if you begin to experience dizziness, fatigue, headache, muscle cramps, nausea, confusion, or dark urine as these may be signs of heat exhaustion. He also recommends consulting your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Binge-watch your way to fitness. YouTube, Hulu, and other streaming services offer yoga and other indoor exercise videos, which can be done away from the scorching outdoor heat. Many are free, though some require subscriptions or payment as you go.  

Winter workouts still work in the summer. Active magazine recommends indoor exercises like pushups, situps and a full-body plank to beat the cold in the winter; but those exercises work indoors in the summer, too! See their full list at their 30-minute indoor workout article.

You can dance. Moneycrashers suggests several exercise options that don’t require equipment. One of them is dancing; fire up a playlist and boot-scoot your way around the living room to a fitter you. Too much junk in the way to cut a rug? You’re in luck. Cleaning also provides exercise benefits, potentially burning north of 150 calories an hour (depending on weight and activity level). 

Looking for more options? Connect with community resources in your area who may have free or discounted indoor fitness programs. You can search for these organizations on AuntBertha.com

Matthew Price is the former features editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. He can be found online at matthewLprice.com.

Tackling Summer Meals for Children in Need

August 16, 2019 in Education

By Matt Smith, Aunt Bertha Policy Analyst

Over 20 million children rely on free and reduced-cost meals at school. During the summer months, the federal government funds programs so these children have access to meals while school is not in session.

The two main summermeal programs, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) served 2.9 million children in 2018. While the NSLP Seamless Option enables schools to continue serving students through the summer, SFSP can be administered through a number of community partners including faith-based organizations, local government agencies, and nonprofits. 2.7 million of the 2.9 million children served though these summer meal programs are fed through SFSP, which cost $484 million in fiscal year 2018. 

Although these programs serve millions of children, only 1 in 7 of the children reached during the school year receive these meals during the summer. With millions of children clearly in need of free and reduced meals, why do we see such a steep drop in participation during the summer months?

One of the main reasons is that the current eligibility requirements for these two summer food programs require such a high concentration of poverty that many communities with large low-income populations remain ineligible. NSLP and SFSP only serve communities where at least 50 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced price meals, communities where 50 percent of the children actually served are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and migrant shelters. Because of these requirements, many communities with relatively high concentrations of poverty do not participate in these programs.

Another obstacle to accessing these services during the summer is a lack of reliable transportation. Although many schools continue to serve meals during the summer months, the school buses that many low-income children rely on to get to school aren’t in service. The SFSP reaches children at places other than schools where children may naturally congregate, but people are not always aware of the free-meal services being provided and reliably getting to these locations remains a significant obstacle. 

The Food Research & Action Center calculates the average daily participation rates in summer food programs compared to their school-year equivalent for each state. The U.S. average was 14.1 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, meaning that only 14.1 percent of likely eligible children are receiving free summer meals.

Source: Food Research & Action Center, 2017-2018 school-year data, graphic by Aunt Bertha.

Some states such as New York and Vermont have roughly double the national average daily participation rates, while other states such as Texas and Nebraska have rates roughly half of the national average. This wide variation in participation results from how dispersed or concentrated each state’s low-income population is and how these states choose to reach low-income children during the summer months. In her story on summer food programs for The New Food Economy, Jessica Fu highlighted two innovative approaches in the last few years that show how states are working to reach this underserved population.

Five years ago, New York City began using food trucks to serve free summer meals. These food trucks are able to go where children congregate during the summer, such as public parks, and serve children directly where they play. This approach helps to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles with accessing summer food programs while easing the burden on families trying to access healthy meals.

Michigan and Tennessee were both awarded grants from the United States Department of Agriculture to pilot a benefit payment card similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer to Children (SEBTC). This program provides a cash benefit that is transferred to a payment card that the family can use to buy food when they are grocery shopping. Beneficiaries of this program no longer need to travel to designated locations to get a summer meal; they can integrate the benefit into their normal meal planning. If expanded, this model could prove to be a critical development for rural areas or communities that don’t meet the 50 percent summer-food-program-eligibility threshold. This is because the child’s free and reduced meal eligibility could allow them to be automatically enrolled during the summer months without obstacles related to where they live.

Summer meal programs serve as a critical stopgap for low-income children while school is no longer in session, but millions of low-income kids remain out of their reach. The federal government should support more opportunities for state and communities to continue developing innovative solutions tailored to their citizens in need. This may require lowering eligibility requirements and encouraging more states to pursue thoughtful pilot projects like the ones in New York, Michigan, and Tennessee. 

Matt Smith is a policy analyst at Aunt Bertha who has completed the government service hat-trick (having worked for federal, state, and local government). Prior to writing this post, Matt enjoyed a simple life of relative anonymity, hiking his dog Eli on the trails surrounding Austin, Texas.

Food Insecurity, Poor Health, and Solutions We’re Seeing For Both

August 13, 2019 in Data, Medicare

By Michael Mireles, Bezos Scholar Intern

In 2017, more than 40 million Americans experienced food insecurity. Defined as “limited or uncertain access to food” by the USDA, food insecurity has serious implications for people who are already dealing with health issues. In addition to negatively affecting health outcomes, food insecurity can also lead to significant increases in healthcare costs. A four-year assessment that included more than 14,000 case studies showed that healthcare costs were 11 percent higher for adults experiencing food insecurity compared to those who weren’t.

And as confirmed in multiple studies, food insecurity increases the development and prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma. 

Here at Aunt Bertha, we’re able to see how Seekers connect to different community social care programs that help make food accessible for their families. 

Let’s consider Philadelphia, for example. According to Feeding America, about 20 percent of Philadelphia residents live in households designated as food insecure. Our data confirms this. As you can see in the graph below, while the number of searches per month on the Aunt Bertha website grew throughout 2018, the percentage of those that were food-related searches remained relatively consistent. This indicates to us that current food programs like community kitchens, while preventing food insecurity from growing, are not enough to reduce food insecurity, at least not in Philadelphia. For the Philadelphia community dealing with health issues or rehabilitation, this ongoing issue of food insecurity poses an even greater risk to the overall health of the community.

As more Seekers on Aunt Bertha’s site search for resources such as “Emergency Food” and “Food Pantry,” we have been looking at ways the Philadelphia and surrounding community is taking on the challenge of addressing food insecurity. With an incentive to lower costs and improve health outcomes, some hospitals and other organizations in Pennsylvania are now taking it upon themselves to create innovative programs for their patients to have greater access to healthy food. 

Innovative Developments 

One way food insecurity is being addressed outside of conventional means is through a sponsor program by Temple University Hospital (TUH). TUH has a Farms to Families program that allows people in the community to sponsor boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables for families in North Philadelphia. These donations have large-scale impact, feeding families from a week to one year. If patients screen positive at their doctor’s office for weight problems or food insecurity, they’ll receive a prescription to the Farm to Families program. Made possible through food stamps, a “prescription” from a Temple doctor, and generous donors, families can buy fresh, organic produce year-round at a reduced price through the program. Serving over 350,000 adults and children, this program by TUH demonstrates how traditional hospitals are extending their models beyond in-office treatment, focusing on nutritional support and counseling for families confronting food insecurity. 

The research coming out of some of these programs is encouraging: for example, MANNA, an organization that provides food and nutritional counseling to people with serious illnesses in Philadelphia revealed that their clients’ health care costs decreased by $10,764 per month in the first three months of receiving nutritionally-tailored meals. 

Two hours west, Shamokin Area Community Hospital operates a unique program for diabetic patients. Diabetic patients at a certain risk level who are food insecure are given a “prescription” by their primary care physician for the Fresh Food Farmacy. With food purchased mainly from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Shamokin offers a stocked “food farmacy” in-house, allowing patients to pick up foods meant to support their health and combat food insecurity as soon as they leave their doctor’s office. Each week, patients receive enough food to prepare healthy meals for their whole family, twice a day for five days. 

These  revolutionary approaches highlight how some healthcare providers are looking for new ways to improve the health of their members by addressing food insecurity. 

The Future

Aunt Bertha is excited about these innovations. Programs like these offer insight into the evolving healthcare reimbursement model, something we identified in a previous blog post. 

The implementation of creative models like community food sponsors and medically-tailored food prescriptions being offered by healthcare organizations themselves is exciting because patients get greater support in addressing food insecurity. This can lead to better clinical and functional outcomes and lower healthcare costs. Aunt Bertha will continue to keep an eye on the cool things happening not only in Pennsylvania, but across the country. We’re excited to see the positive impacts these innovative models are going to have on Seekers’ quality of life. 

Michael Mireles is a Bezos Scholar intern at Aunt Bertha who works with the company’s data team. 

Tech Innovators Still Trying to Solve Summertime Heat Problem

August 8, 2019 in Technology

By Omar L. Gallaga, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

We’ve got smartphones, GPS everywhere, amazing digital assistants that do our bidding via voice command, and robots ready to take over the world. But we’re still sweating. A lot. It’s a problem.

Every summer is a harsh reminder that as advanced as our technology has gotten, we’re still trying to solve the basic problem of combating heat that can exceed 100 degrees in many parts of the country, and which can be a major health risk, particularly in cities where many aren’t readily equipped with reliable central air.

Researchers are trying to find some innovative solutions to cooling, which can consume massive amounts of energy when so many of us are blasting our air conditioning. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy says that cooling alone makes up about 9 percent of the average home’s energy consumption. 

The Office says that it’s keeping an eye on several innovations that could ease up on energy usage and revolutionize the way we beat the heat.

It pointed to ways that reducing refrigerant leaks, combining devices such as water heaters, dehumidifiers and air coolers into one unit, or developing solid-state heat pumps may solve some of the problems inherent in current HVAC systems. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is working on an energy storage system that utilizes waste-heat to improve HVAC performance by 35 percent. 

Dais Analytic Corporation and BTO Peer Review via Department of Energy

But most interesting in the Office’s roundup is the idea of a membrane-based rooftop air conditioner that would use water instead of chemicals and save 30 to 50 percent in electricity consumption. 

Lest you think the only people working on getting you cooler are government agencies and researchers, the free market has plenty of entrepreneurs who think they have solutions, such as Octocool, a company that sells clothing with cooling systems built in. Do they have fans built in that run on rechargeable batteries? Yes, they do.

Other kind of active cooling wear utilize special materials to draw heat away from the body, such as Arctic Wear’s line of cooling shirts.

Evaporative cooling systems have become popular the last few years; they work by cooling using moisture in the air. They can run anywhere from $150 to $400 and there’s some debate as to whether their limited range is worth the cost; some are meant to only cool a single small room, similar to an air-conditioning window unit.

Octocool sells a variety of fan-carrying cooling clothes.

Sometimes the simplest ways to stay cool, however, are the least expensive. Knowing what kind of temperature and humidity you’re dealing with is important and there are plenty of deep-dive free apps that can give you a better idea of the temperature than your phone’s built-in app weather app. “Thermometer,” which aggregates an average temperature from several sources, is a good one to try out. “Smart Thermometer” for Android uses the phone’s built-in temperature sensor. 

For resources on programs for free or discounted fans and A/C units, you can always try Aunt Bertha’s search engine as well for programs in your area.

Omar L. Gallaga is a veteran technology and culture writer who’s written for the Austin American-Statesman, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” CNN.com and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in New Braunfels, Texas, where he keeps cool in the summer by tubing the Comal River.

Safe Summer Fun for Your Furry Friends

August 6, 2019 in Education

By Jodi N. Gonzalez, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

Summer dog, panting

Photo by Carlos Castilla

The dog days of summer are here, and not just for us humans. Our furry friends are in the heat of it as well, and keeping them cool is a top priority.

Staying inside is the obvious way to avoid the summer heat, but pets still want to play! If your best friend is itching to get outside and run, here are a few things you can do to keep them safe in the sun:

  1. Keep things in check: Summer is a good time to take your pet to the vet for a checkup. Undetected health issues can put your dog or cat at greater risk of heat-related problems. Pets with flatter noses, such as pugs and Persian cats, are more susceptible to becoming overheated because they can’t pant as well as other breeds. And overweight or elderly dogs and cats are also at a higher risk of heat-related problems. Getting a clean bill of health is the best way to prepare for summer fun. 
  2. Lighten up the workouts: Shorter walks, early in the day, help your pet get in some exercise without taxing their system. If your routine is a daily long walk around the park, cut down on the time and frequency during the hottest months. 
  3. Throw shade: Well, not that kind of shade. Make sure that wherever you take your dog or cat, you can find plenty of places that block the sun so you can retreat and refresh. And always bring along plenty of water to cool them off. For yourself, as well.
  4. Leave them at home: Locking your pet in the car, even for a quick run into the store, is a recipe for disaster in high temperatures. Even if the outside air doesn’t feel too warm, the air inside a closed vehicle can rise rapidly, leading to distress and even death for an animal. Cracking open a window isn’t the solution; temperatures can still be unsafe. When the outside temperature is 85, the inside of the vehicle can reach 102 degrees in 10 minutes, even with a window opened up a bit. Besides being dangerous, leaving a pet in the car is also illegal in some states. Check here to see what the law says in your location.
  5. Tender tootsies: Ground surfaces can heat up quickly, and that can mean pain for your pooch. Put your hand on the sidewalk before taking Fido out for a walk to make sure it isn’t too hot for your pet’s paws. 
  6. Get a summer ‘do: For dogs and cats with long hair, summer is the best time to try a new look. A trip to the groomers for a shorter-than-usual cut can keep pets cooler. But don’t shave them completely. Fur protects their skin from sunburn.
  7. Full face forward: Muzzles are a good option when dogs need to be restrained, but in hot weather, the contraptions can prevent panting. And panting helps pets regulate temperature. Skip the muzzle when it’s hot outside.
  8. Icy treats: Try ice cubes or puppy snow cones for a treat after time in the sun. Check out these recipes to get you started. 
  9. Know the signs: If, despite best efforts, your pet still seems off after time in the sun, it could be heatstroke. Signs of heatstroke in pets include trouble breathing, excessive panty, drooling, mild weakness, acting “off,” and collapse. More advanced symptoms include seizures and vomiting. If you notice any of these symptoms, wrap your pet in cool, wet towels, and seek veterinary care right away.
  10. Cool by the pool: We’ve all seen adorable videos of dogs doing laps in the backyard watering hole, but not all animals are strong swimmers. Keep animals away from the pool party just to be safe if you’re not able to supervise. Some breeds are more inherently agile in the water. See if your dog falls on the super swimmer list.

You can find resources in your area by ZIP Code for pets on Aunt Bertha under the Care menu in “Animal Welfare.”

Jodi N. Gonzalez is a veteran writer and editor. In her 25+ year career, she has managed copy desks and written content for the Austin American-Statesman and the Los Angeles Times’ online content group.

A/C is a Luxury for Many, but There’s Help 

August 5, 2019 in Education

By Nyein Sein, Marketing Manager at Aunt Bertha

Extreme summer heat can add hardship for folks already struggling from paycheck to paycheck. When temperatures soar into triple digits, many people are forced to choose between keeping the A/C running and other essentials such as rent, food, and prescriptions. The lack of air conditioning in one’s home, work, and surroundings not only present barriers to sleep, making a living, and exercise but may bring on a range of health concerns. Fortunately, there are many forms of relief for people in need during the hot summer months.

Utility Payment Assistance

If you’re facing financial distress, your utility company may be able to work with you to keep your A/C on. For example, the City of Austin offers a range of programs to help with their electric bills, and also partners with local social service providers to provide for emergency financial aid. Nonprofit organizations across the country can also help provide assistance: for instance, Washington. D.C.-based Mid-County United Ministries (MUM) negotiates with utility companies on behalf of people in need to avoid shutoffs and to restore service quickly.

You can easily find utility payment assistance programs in your area by entering your ZIP Code on Aunt Bertha and navigating to the “help pay for utilities” option under Money. You can also check out other types of financial assistance in your community, such as help paying for food, housing, and more.

Broken A/C and Your Landlord Won’t Budge?

Depending on where you live, you may have legal rights to air conditioning if it is deemed crucial to living in your home. In some sunbelt cities, landlords have to fix broken A/C units within a specified time after a tenant gives written notice for repair. Tenants in Phoenix, for example, can take action after five days if their A/C issues persist and deduct costs from their next month’s rent. Remedies may include:

  • Moving into temporary housing;
  • Purchasing a wall unit;
  • Hiring a contractor to repair the unit.

There’s typically a cap to reimbursement — in Phoenix, it’s $300 or half of the monthly rent, whichever is greater. If you decide to take things into your own hands, make sure you research the laws in your area as well as rules for your property, have proof of notice in writing, a time stamp that shows passing of the required time window, and receipts of expenses you plan to deduct.

Addressing summer heat isn’t just about comfort — it’s about ensuring your health, well-being, and safety. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it.

Nyein Sein leads Marketing at Aunt Bertha. She lives in Austin and enjoys reading everything under the sun in her spare time.

Note: This article is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such. You can search for free and reduced-cost legal services on Aunt Bertha.

About Aunt Bertha

Our mission is to connect all people in need and the programs that serve them (with dignity and ease). When we started out in 2010, we defined a new way for people to access social services that empowered them to own their search. However, navigation was just the beginning! We believe in giving people who reach out for help the dignity of a response through thoughtful consideration of their journey, from beginning to end. When you seek resources on our platform, you’ll get the help you need, quickly and simply.

Ways to Spend Less Money on School Supplies

August 2, 2019 in Education

By Ellen Chang, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

As students are counting down the last days of summer, parents are scouring ads for discounts on school supplies.

The cost of supplies, ranging from pencils and backpacks to laptops continues to rise annually.

The National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, and Prosper Insights and Analytics, estimates that families with students in elementary school through high school are expected to shell out an average of $696.70 this year, an increase from $684.79 in 2018. Parents who have children attending college are spending even more money at an average of $976.78, a slight increase from $942.17 in 2018.

Here is a breakdown on what families are spending their money on for children under the age of 18, according to the survey of 7,660 consumers: 

  • Clothing and accessories: $239.82
  • Electronics: $203.44
  • Shoes: $135.96
  • Supplies: $117.49 

College students spend their backtoschool budget differently:

  • Electronics: $234.69
  • Clothing and accessories: $148.54
  • Dorm and apartment furnishings: $120.19
  • Food items: $98.72
School supplies

Photo by Omar L. Gallaga

Discounts

The increase in spending doesn’t mean saving money on back-to-school supplies is a lost cause. You can save money by shopping in early August since many clothing retailers are still offering massive discounts.

Stores such as T.J. Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory and Marshalls have layaway programs which will give you additional flexibility in your budget. 

Compare prices at local stores with online retailers such as Ebay and Amazon where you can find steep discounts.

Many retailers offer free shipping if you buy your items online and spend enough to hit their free-shipping minimum, often $25 to $35. 

Check out warehouse clubs such as BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, and Sam’s Club for supplies and clothing.

Resale shops offer steep discounts often on brandnew or barely worn jeans, t-shirts, and other attire. 

Free Programs

Many organizations such as advocacy and non-profit organizations will provide both school supplies and backpacks to students in various neighborhoods for free.

Aunt Bertha lists free and reduced cost school supply programs across the country. It’s easy to find a program near you, just go to AuntBertha.com, enter your ZIP Code, and search for school supplies in your area.

Also check out Eventbrite to see which groups are offering free supplies in your neighborhood. Search for “School supplies” on the site or search by location on Eventbrite’s site map.

Military families can obtain free supplies and backpacks from Operation Homefront that works with retailer Dollar Tree annually. You can register your child and look for a local event here.

Many states have tax-free weekends to help ease the burden of shelling out hundreds of dollars for back to school shopping. In Texas, the tax-free weekend is August 9 to 11. Purchases of all clothing, footwear, school supplies, and backpacks that cost less $100 are exempt from sales tax. Here is a list of items that qualify under the program. 

Check out the website of your local city or county. Many cities also host their own programs, such as Houston. There are limitations: students must be attending elementary school to qualify. Here is more information on how to sign up.

Corporations also sponsor events for free supplies. For instance, Boost Mobile offers a program starting in August for free backpacks filled with supplies. You can find a local event through their Facebook page.

Companies often list their free programs on social media services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Local United Way programs often provide free supplies in August. You can find your local United Way here.

Ellen Chang is a freelance journalist who is based in Houston and writes for TheStreet and U.S. News & World Report. Chang focuses her articles on stocks, entrepreneurs, personal finance, energy and cybersecurity. Her byline has appeared in national business publications, including USA Today, CBS News, Yahoo Finance and MSN Money. She is a proud graduate of Purdue University and a lover of random acts of kindness, volunteering and dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter @ellenychang and Instagram @ellenyinchang.

Does Being Compliant Make You Complacent?

July 31, 2019 in Announcements

By Stu Scruggs, Chief Information Officer at Aunt Bertha

“Compliant” versus “complacent.”

They look like related words, and they came to mind as I reflected on Aunt Bertha’s recent successful achievement of the HITRUST CSF® Certification for our site.

This was a big deal for us, as HITRUST champions programs that safeguard sensitive information and manage information risk for global organizations across all industries and throughout the third-party supply chain. As a leader within social determinants of health, many of our customers are health insurance and healthcare providers, and they want to have confidence in how we are maintaining and protecting people’s data and privacy through information security best practices.

The HITRUST Process and Compliance: What is it?

The HITRUST process consists of having an outside organization (called an “assessor,” approved by HITRUST) come in and review everything we do for IT security and privacy (called “controls”) to make sure we follow the best practices as laid out in the HITRUST CSF®. The HITRUST CSF® includes security controls across a range of standards such as NIST and ISO 27001 that can improve a company’s IT security program, including standards specific to the health industry such as the HIPAA Privacy and Security rules. The word “Compliant” means conforming to requirements, and we spent months preparing documentation, taking screenshots, and answering interview questions to show that we were compliant with the HITRUST requirements.

All this effort is required because healthcare organizations operate under a complex and growing set of regulations and guidelines, all while trying to manage rapid technological change. The HITRUST requirements are continually updated to reflect new technologies and regulations. Companies of all kinds working with an organization that has achieved HITRUST certification can have confidence that their partners are following best practices to protect data without doing their own in-depth security review, saving them time and money. This also benefits smaller Aunt Bertha customers and partners who wouldn’t have the resources to conduct an IT security audit. They can know that Aunt Bertha is treating their data with the same care as our largest customers.

Not Resting On Our Laurels

“Complacent,” on the other hand, is defined as showing smug or uncritical satisfaction with one’s self or one’s achievements.

Long before Aunt Bertha went through the HITRUST certification process, respect for the privacy of Seekers, the primary users of our site, has been a key part of what we do, starting with our anonymous search page. We understand that the last thing someone who needs help wants to deal with is a lot of intrusive questions. We understand that sometimes you have to do what’s less profitable, or less convenient, to do what’s right for your community.

We’ve always worked hard to protect people’s information and provide a secure website, but HITRUST became our opportunity for an outside organization to confirm it for everyone else, including potential partners who must meet strict privacy and security standards.

Yes, we’re proud that we’ve achieved this certification, but as we provide more and more people the opportunity to connect with social services, we don’t want to be “uncritically satisfied with our achievement.” We will continue to do more to ensure the safety of data while continuing to innovate to connect all people in need and the programs that serve them (with dignity and ease)… and security.

We are compliant, but more importantly we will never be complacent.

Stu Scruggs has worn many hats as Aunt Bertha’s Chief Information Officer since joining in 2012. He now lives in Colorado and enjoys singing in his spare time.

Part 4: A Blog Series on the Highly Anticipated CHRONIC Care Act

April 24, 2019 in Medicare

The Rising Prominence of Community Based Organizations

By Bella Kirchner, Special Projects Manager

As healthcare reimbursement models evolve to pay based on value (high quality care at lower costs) rather than on volume, healthcare plans and providers are focusing on the factors outside of healthcare that can impact a patient’s health.

Studies show that addressing these factors can lead to better health outcomes, which in turn, lower the cost of care. For many decades, the healthcare industry has focused on using clinical medical care (e.g., office visits, medications, hospitalizations) to improve the health of their patients. However, research shows that much of a person’s health is actually not determined by clinical healthcare, but by a person’s individual behaviors and social & environmental factors, often coined “social determinants of health.” When you don’t take care of a patient’s basic needs, their overall health suffers.

The realization that these factors have a major impact on both health outcomes and the cost of care has led to changes in both care and reimbursement models. While all of these changes are pushing health plans and providers to focus on social determinants, they are quite aware that they’re in the business of health, not social care, and know that working towards more formal partnerships with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) is going to be critical to successfully providing social care.

The Role of CMS

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has also bought into the importance of addressing social determinants and is pushing the industry in that direction in the form of a new way to payment model that was introduced last year. The new payment model will be implemented in 2020 and specifically impact Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. MA plans are private health insurance plans that those eligible for Medicare can purchase. These plans provide Medicare beneficiaries additional benefits beyond traditional Medicare, such as dental and vision coverage and, starting in 2020, social care benefits as well. The reason why this is so significant is because of the huge and growing number of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. While Medicare Advantage already had over 20 million enrolled members in 2018, there appears to be a strong growth trend that indicates this number could grow much higher. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, 1.5 million new members signed up, a growth of eight percent from the previous year.

When CMS starts to pay for social care, there is suddenly a much larger pool of people whose health plans have a specific interest in ensuring their members get these services—and those health plans are likely going to turn to CBOs to help provide those services. This is a great opportunity for health plans and CBOs to work together to improve the health and social care landscape.

Working Together

The idea of healthcare organizations and CBOs working together is not a new one. In a study from December 2017, Scripps Gerontology Center surveyed almost 600 CBOs and found that just over a third of them already had contractual relationships with healthcare entities, with the two most common entity types being Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs) at 35% and hospitals/hospital systems at 28%.

However, this was before the new CMS social care reimbursement model for Medicare Advantage plans was released. With the new social care payment model being rolled out in 2020, there is an entirely new and very large group of people (over 20 million) whose health plans have specific financial incentives to connect them to certain social care services. CMS, in line with its new payment model incentivizing social care, is also encouraging tighter integration between health plans and CBOs. CMS recognizes that these services aren’t normally provided by health plans and so, as outlined in their recent announcement, is pushing Medicare Advantage plans and CBOs to become more closely connected by encouraging the following:

  • Plans can contract with CBOs to provide new “social care” supplemental benefits CMS will be reimbursing for; and
  • CBOs can help the plan determine if a member meets eligibility requirements for supplemental benefits.

No Longer an Afterthought

CBOs, rather than an afterthought, suddenly become major players in this new reimbursement model. Because reimbursement models are driven by better health outcomes (which are tied to getting better social care) and because CMS will be paying for certain types of supplemental social care benefits, plans become more inclined to ensure their patients are screened and receive these services.

Of course, this transition will not happen overnight. Because this move for health plans to arrange social care is so new and complex, it’s likely that they won’t dive into the deep end right away, but will instead start by dipping their toes in the water. They will likely lean on existing partnerships and will establish new ones gradually. The perspective of the CBOs cannot be lost in this transition as well. There are larger questions around what role CBOs want to play in this healthcare game and about who is going to do the work.

Who Does the Work?

As CMS, health insurers, and healthcare providers begin to navigate this new territory of having to refer to and help arrange social care, many questions start to arise around who does the work.

Who will be responsible for…

  • Identifying patients’ social needs?
  • Connecting patients to the appropriate services and ensuring those needs are fulfilled?
  • Communicating about the end result to invested/interested parties (i.e., doctors, care managers, other social service providers, care givers, health plans)?

No one industry or organization can do it all. The siloed models of the past will not work and so an entire network of players is going to have to come together.

While in theory this reimagining of the health and social scare landscapes sounds great, there are concerns about how to make this work on the ground. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts recently published a report on how CBOs are responding to the healthcare market moving into the social care space in Massachusetts. For so long, we’ve heard about this new focus on social determinants from a healthcare perspective so this study is a welcome opportunity to hear from CBOs about the industry transition.

In the study, CBOs definitely recognize the benefits of being more closely connected to healthcare organizations—more financial incentives, financial risk moving to health care organizations (spurring more interest in care coordination), better access to financial and political resources, better policy. However, CBOs also have a number of concerns, including the potential of quickly running out of capacity due to new higher-volume sources of referrals (health plans and healthcare organizations), the focus away from their original missions in their attempt to partner with healthcare organizations, the inability to have strong negotiating powers at the table with large, well-funded healthcare organizations, and the larger impact on the entire social care system.

Looking Forward

In order to efficiently and effectively coordinate, offer, and provide the social care so many people desperately need, healthcare entities and CBOs are going to need to come together and have conversations about how to make this work on the ground. Financial incentives are finally aligning, which means there will likely be more formal contracted relationships. However, the conversation cannot end there. These incentives are only the beginning of a challenging but exciting opportunity to change the health and social care landscapes.

Given the number of people who are in need of this help, and given the major differences in how healthcare entities and CBOs operate and think about these problems, they are going to need to think carefully about how to design a system that can truly make larger impacts on the health and quality of life of the people that they serve. It’s exciting to see these two worlds come together and start these discussions and it’s especially encouraging to see the impact these types of partnerships are going to have on those patients and community members that really need the help.

Rising Homelessness Among California’s College Students

March 29, 2019 in Education

This month, a new study called the #RealCollege Survey published alarming statistics about the social well-being of California community college students. The study estimated that around 20% of California community college students have experienced homelessness in the last year, 60% have experienced recent housing insecurity, and 50% have experienced food insecurity (1). The #RealCollege Survey was completed on community college campuses across California in the fall of 2016 and 2018. It’s worth noting that college students experiencing poverty, homelessness, and food/housing insecurity is not unique to California as educational institutions across the country face these issues.

According to StandUp for Kids, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless youth, the rising costs of housing and stagnant wages across the country (2) have made it increasingly challenging for families to support their college-age children pursuing higher education. Parents may find themselves unable to help their children at all or at least struggle to pay for both tuition and housing, leaving students to make their own accommodations. Some students may not even have the support of parents, such as students who were raised in foster care. The #RealCollege survey noted that these students experienced homelessness at a higher rate than children of parents with either a bachelor’s degree or higher education (1).

While college campuses have been reporting student homelessness growing in recent years, the recent publication is one of the first to study the problem with a student survey. Over 40,000 students participated in the survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University’s College of Education in Philadelphia. Key observations are highlighted below:

Actual homelessness rates among students are likely higher.

Only six percent of students labeled themselves as homeless, while the other thirteen percent were only classified as homeless after stating where they lived (shelters, hotels, couchsurfing, etc).

This indicates the likelihood that other surveys that estimate rates of homelessness through self disclosure are understating the true values.

Sixty percent of California community college students have experienced housing insecurity in the last year.

Housing insecurity encompasses a category of experiences ranging from difficulty or inability to pay rent to having to move frequently.

Students may need to move frequently for a variety of reasons, such as living in areas which feel unsafe or being forced out of a living situation due to the space being over-capacity.

Fifty percent of California community college students have experienced food insecurity in the past month.

Food insecurity is defined as limited access to adequate supplies of nutritious food or the inability to access food via socially acceptable means.

Removing non-academic barriers to student success.

Homelessness on college campuses is a growing problem across the country. Students who are experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, or food insecurity face risks not only to their well-being, but also to their education. Many students experiencing these challenges are not able to graduate due to the greater mental burden of securing access to life essentials such as food or housing. To help these students succeed, we need to become aware of their presence on campuses across the country and take action to help them connect with resources to support their social needs.

Many institutions of higher education are already partnering with Aunt Bertha to address the social needs of students. With our platform, they can help students and their families remove non-academic barriers to student success. Through an assessment, staff can identify and refer students to community resources which are often provided on campus. Aunt Bertha enables institutions of higher education to connect the dots between the campus and the community, gaining a deeper understanding of the impact those connections have on a student’s success in the process. Our higher education partners include forward thinking institutions such as Ivy Tech Community College, St. Edward’s University, University of South Florida, and NC Community Colleges to name just a few.

We also partner with nonprofit organizations serving homeless populations, such as StandUp for Kids. Many of our nonprofit partners place a search engine powered by Aunt Bertha, with their own branding, onto their websites so that the communities they serve can search for social assistance on their own. You can check out an example of Aunt Bertha’s configurable search engine here!

References

  1. Goldrick-Rab, Sara, et al. California Community Colleges #RealCollege Survey. The Hope Center, 1 Mar. 2019, Christine Baker-Smith.
  2. http://www.standupforkids.org/blog/article/the-cost-of-an-education-homeless-college-students

Cool Visual of the Month!

March 27, 2019 in Data

by Trudie Bruno, Customer Success Manager

The footprint left in the wake of natural disasters in the United States in 2018.

Natural disasters have effects which are both immediate and long-term, deeply affecting the areas in which these emergencies occur. The immediate effects are obvious, bringing to mind the image of a family stranded on the roof of their flooded home or that of a wildfire casting up a cloud of dark smoke. The long-term effects can be just as devastating, though, as natural disasters can force communities to rebuild everything from homes to social networks. Fortunately, there are many people, programs, and organizations that are generous with their time and resources to help people impacted by disasters in affected areas.

This heat map shows searches for free & reduced cost services on a disaster relief organization’s branded website, powered by Aunt Bertha. Search trends on this platform show areas of concentrated need, with the map showing search density as a spectrum of color moving from purple (low concentration of searches) to blue (medium concentration) to green (high concentration).

The heat map shows areas of highest search concentration over several areas of the US which were impacted by natural disasters in the past year:

Central California

The 2018 wildfire season was one of the most deadly and devastating seasons on record, with Central California experiencing widespread disaster from fires.

The high search density for social care resources in Central California aligns with areas which were most impacted by wildfires in 2018, likely as a result of communities recovering from fires.

Southern California

The 2018 wildfire season was devastating to Southern California as fires encroached on the densely populated areas surrounding Los Angeles.

The high search density for social care resources in Southern California is clustered in the region outside of Los Angeles, which was heavily impacted by wildfires in 2018.

A digital fire tracker created by the San Francisco Chronicle (1).

Florida Panhandle & Central Georgia

In 2018, the Florida Panhandle experienced one of the strongest storms ever to strike the US when Michael landed as a Category 4 hurricane.

Damages were estimated in the millions and assistance groups anticipated it would take months to even determine the full scope of the damages.

The high search density for social care resources in the Florida Panhandle and Central Georgia can be found in the region that was devastated by Hurricane Michael.

Searches for social services on Aunt Bertha follows the trail of devastation from natural disasters in 2018.
Hurricane Michael baring down on FL and GA (2).

Carolinas

Hurricane Florence caused unprecedented damage in the Carolinas and the East Coast as a slow-moving, moisture-heavy storm.

There is a high density of searches over the Carolinas, where Hurricane Florence stalled and dumped up to 30 inches of rain in some regions.

Interestingly, there is a medium density of searches across Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio following the path of Hurricane Florence before it turned east to New England.

A map showing Hurricane Florence’s devastating path across the East Coast.

References:

  1. https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2018/fire-tracker/
  2. https://www.ajc.com/news/local/without-power-georgia-hurricane-michael-makes-landfall/XlJpC9gxQdQDnUc19vWLcP/
  3. https://www.mapsofworld.com/hurricane/hurricane-florence-path-map.html

Customer Success Story: Camden Coalition

March 22, 2019 in Partners

by Trudie Bruno, Customer Success Manager

Camden Coalition and Aunt Bertha tackle AHC requirements together.

Camden Coalition, founded by Dr. Jeffrey Brenner in 2002, is an organization of hospitals, providers, and advocates that collaborate to deliver healthcare to the most vulnerable people in their community. They are one of 32 organizations selected to participate in the Accountable Health Communities (AHC) initiative through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). This initiative aims to bridge the critical gap between clinical and community service providers by addressing health-related social care needs, aligning well with the missions of both Camden Coalition and Aunt Bertha. In 2018, Aunt Bertha and Camden Coalition collaborated to build assessment workflows to enable Camden’s success in the AHC Model.

Aunt Bertha has features built to meet AHC requirements, including integrated screening, navigation, goal tracking and reporting. Let’s dive into more detail on how some of these tools help meet AHC requirements.

Needs Assessments

1. AHC-eligible beneficiaries are able to complete a web-based assessment to identify social care risks and needs.

2. Camden staff help eligible AHC beneficiaries complete or administer the screening.

3. Needs identified through the assessment are then used to recommend social care resources as well as an action plan.

4. Results from the assessment can be reviewed at any time and goals can be updated and tracked over time.

Referrals

1. Referrals are tracked through the Aunt Bertha platform and allow updates to be made in real time.

2. The Seeker, staff, or the Community Based Organization can “close the loop” to indicate if the community member was able to get help.

Navigation

1. Camden Coalition and Aunt Bertha collaborated closely on designing the workflows to ensure a smooth process for both staff and community members.

2. The navigation tools represent a central location from which individual member profiles can be reviewed and updated.

3. Staff manage goals, needs, referrals, assessment results, contact information, and more.

Reporting

1. Aunt Bertha offers a detailed reporting suite and has the capability to create CMS-required reports, which was essential for the Camden Coalition AHC project.

2. AHC specifications require a weekly data submission and Aunt Bertha regularly runs and maintains these reports, which are then submitted to CMS by Camden Coalition to meet the demonstration project goals.

3. Since the Camden project launched in 2018, over 3,700 assessments have been submitted. Recently, the frequency of completed submissions has grown to over 1,000 completed submissions each month.

4. Camden Coalition is an impactful example of an innovative team using our tools to demonstrate new ways to support community health and wellness. Through thoughtful collaboration, our teams developed tools, workflows, and a community-facing experience that keeps the Seeker at the center.

The contents provided are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of HHS or any of its agencies. The project described was supported by Funding Opportunity Number CMS CMS-1P1-17-001 from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Aunt Bertha Celebrates Social Workers

March 10, 2019 in Partners

In honor of Professional Social Workers month in March, we thank the nearly 700,000 Social Workers in America who selflessly connect people in need to resources in their community. We applaud organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) that’s started a dialogue on boosting the pay of Social Workers, which continues to lag behind other highly trained, helping professions.

Credit: National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

A New Model for Ambulance Care

March 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

by Trudie Bruno, Customer Success Manager

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a new initiative termed Medicare ET3, or Emergency Triage, Treat, and Transport (ET3) Model.1 Although the program will largely serve Medicare beneficiaries, it has the potential to create a long-term impact on how Americans think about transportation, cost savings, and health.

ET3 is a program which increases the flexibility for how ambulance care teams can choose to respond to emergency calls. In the existing model, ambulance care teams are directed to transport the patient to the nearest hospital ER. Under the ET3 model, these teams respond to an emergency call but have the option to take any of the following actions:

  • Treat the patient onsite;
  • Treat the patient with a provider through a telemedicine service;
  • Transport the patient to a nearby primary care provider; or
  • Transport the patient to the nearest hospital ER.

The initiative also sets aside funding to assist 911 dispatch services with setting up a medical triage line which can serve anyone who calls in. Together, these processes lend the new initiative its three Ts: Triage, Treat, and Transport.

For now, the ET3 model is simply an initiative by The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). While it’s limited in timeline and scope (with a five year performance period serving a specific population) the most important takeaway from this initiative is what it means for US healthcare as a whole. The model aims to reduce healthcare costs by increasing the flexibility of responses to emergency calls, improving transportation options for immediate care, and encouraging medical triage. In doing so, the initiative highlights the importance of these factors for the future of healthcare.

Transportation is a social determinant which can significantly impact a patient’s ability to get the care they need.2 To date, though, this need has not been largely acknowledged by the US healthcare system. The launch of this initiative by CMS signals that this may soon be changing. Approximately 40% of health spending in the US is funded by Medicare and Medicaid programs3, representing more than a trillion dollars. This gives CMS significant buying power and influence in the US healthcare space, meaning other payers may take note and go down the same path.

For example, some commercial health insurance companies have begun to offer transportation to healthcare appointments as a value-add for members, although this is hardly a widespread practice. One plan will offer a scheduled car service, while another offers a transportation escort for those who may need assistance to travel to medical appointments. Additionally, several new companies are popping up to partner with rideshare services to help get patients to their appointments.

While these innovative efforts are beginning to address transport barriers to healthcare access in select markets, they are still fragmented and inconsistent in their availability across the country. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the new ET3 model announced by CMS. While the model will largely serve Medicare beneficiaries, the significant purchasing power and influence of CMS hopefully signals a shift towards addressing the social domain of transportation for all people in need.

References

  1. Emergency Triage, Treat, and Transport (ET3) Model. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://innovation.cms.gov/initiatives/et3/
  2. Syed, S., Gerber, B., & Sharp, L. (n.d.). Traveling Towards Disease: Transportation Barriers to … Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4265215/
  3. National Health Expenditures 2017 Highlights. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/downloads/highlights.pdf

Cool Visual of the Month!

March 4, 2019 in Data, Intake

by Nyein Sein, Marketing Manager

Aggregated searches for housing assistance on auntbertha.com in the past 365 days.

Until recently, homelessness in Los Angeles was concentrated—for the most part—in Skid Row, a downtown district just a few blocks south of City Hall. Starting about five years ago, though, a sharp rise in homelessness in Los Angeles meant that LA’s homeless population could no longer be confined to four square miles.

This heat map shows searches for housing assistance on Aunt Bertha’s public platform at https://www.auntbertha.com/ across Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Search trends on our free platform are a proxy for where people are falling behind in a community and what their most critical needs are. The search density spectrum moves from purple (low concentration of searches) to blue (medium concentration) to green (high concentration).

Twenty years ago, it’s likely that this map would have been a smaller sea of purple with one prominent, green dot overlaid on Downtown Los Angeles. Today, we see housing searches spread far and wide across both counties, with high search density in areas that have not been traditionally associated with homelessness.

We saw the highest volume of housing related searches in Santa Monica, which has experienced a growing number of homeless individuals living in its beaches and parks. The cities of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, previously isolated enclaves of affluence, have witnessed a migration of the homeless population northward along its beaches. (The other hotspot north of Santa Monica reflects the famous 90210 ZIP Code often entered by users exploring our platform for the first time).

It’s much easier for someone to become homeless in Los Angeles compared to other cities, due to the worrisome combination of skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing. The housing mix in Los Angeles, with its low ratio of multifamily housing to single family homes, has exacerbated both factors.

It’s worth noting that we observed substantial search volume by people in need for housing assistance in regions without a visible homeless population, such as Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. Our data on search patterns can be useful for pinpointing communities where people may be at risk for homelessness in the near future, based on real-time spikes in housing assistance searches. Our data was consistent with the notion that the rising number of Los Angeles natives experiencing homelessness for the first time (a 16 percent increase between 2017 and 2018 according to Bloomberg) may have been foreshadowed by the high search density samples on Aunt Bertha’s platform.

An innovative way that health clinics, government agencies, and Community Based Organizations have helped to tackle homelessness is to identify at-risk clients as part of their intake process. Questions such as the following can be incorporated into intake applications:

  • Do you have any overdue utility or housing bills?
  • In the last three years, how many times have you been without steady housing?
  • How long has it been since you’ve had a steady place to live?
  • Are you worried about losing your housing in the future?
  • Do you have a proof of address, such as a signed lease or utility bill in your name?

A client who meets criteria would then be assisted by a social services navigator who would refer them to resources in the community for help with their situation.

For example, a health system with clinics in the San Fernando Valley may monitor housing assistance searches in real-time to determine whether additional care coordination is needed at those locations. Such interventions benefit healthcare organizations as social risk factors such as housing insecurity often interfere with a patient’s health. Screening questions may help identify relationships such as patients coming in for stress-related illness who also cannot keep up with rising rents. A screening questionnaire would identify such at-risk patients and direct them towards help to pay for housing before further detriment to their well being.

From Interns to Leaders: How Aunt Bertha Develops Data Fellows

February 22, 2019 in Team
By Shayra Madero-Fajardo, Data Quality Associate

Here at Aunt Bertha, we invest significantly in our Data Operations team. It’s the largest department in the company, with over 20 members, and it’s still growing! Data team members are Seeker-focused, meaning they research and enter programs with the Seeker in mind, continually asking if the data being entered will help them more easily find and connect with the services they need.

This deep knowledge of the system and dedication to our mission have made it possible for data team members to transition and make an impact in other roles within the company. All of these team members have one thing in common—a belief in making a change for the better.

Here are some of their stories…

Nazanin Garcia, Data Quality Specialist Supervisor

Nazanin began her career at Aunt Bertha as a Part-Time Data Quality Specialist and after a year transitioned into a supervisor role and currently serves as the Data Quality Specialist Supervisor. Before joining Aunt Bertha she worked as a Customer Service Representative for State Farm, where she gained perspective on the importance of planning for the future. After seeing an Aunt Bertha job posting, reading about Aunt Bertha’s mission and Erine’s future vision for accessing social services, Nazanin was drawn to apply. She wanted to learn new things while serving the mission of the organization.

She came in as a blank canvas, eager to learn, and the more she learned, the more she loved being at Aunt Bertha. She’s been inspired by the people, the passion, the mission, and the culture. Being at Aunt Bertha has helped Nazanin with personal growth as well. She has been able to create a career path for herself with the guidance of her managers. She is constantly learning how to be a better leader and implement the steps needed to further her career.

Jeremy Owens, Data Quality Specialist & Reporting Analyst Intern

Jeremy began his career at Aunt Bertha as a Data Quality Intern and now uses his expertise as a Data Quality Specialist and as a Reporting Analyst Intern on the Product team. Before working at Aunt Bertha, Jeremy worked as a cashier and parking lot attendant for the University of Texas while attending school there. (During his time in that job, he met former UT quarterback Vince Young several times while working UT football games!) Jeremy was originally drawn to Aunt Bertha for its mission and its role in the social services industry. He knew from his grandmother’s experience, struggling to get help in the past how incredibly difficult it can be to navigate the system. He was excited for the opportunity to help people in need and make a difference for people who are going through difficult times. In Jeremy’s words, a job where you’re helping people day in and day out is a pretty sweet gig.

Aunt Bertha has grown quite a bit since Jeremy started but he still feels it is a tight-knit group of people committed to helping others. His favorite part about working at Aunt Bertha is knowing he is making a positive impact on the lives of people. Aunt Bertha has helped Jeremy grow as an employee. He recognizes the effort that goes into giving people opportunities to step up to new responsibilities and develop themselves. Management has been supportive and their desire to develop employees within the company is visible on a daily basis. Recently, Jeremy was recognized as one of Aunt Bertha’s most valuable employees in 2018!

Erica Rodriguez, Community Engagement Coordinator

Erica started at Aunt Bertha as a Data Quality Specialist and now uses her expertise as a Community Engagement Coordinator. Before joining Aunt Bertha, Erica served as an Administrative Assistant. She was drawn to Aunt Bertha because of its mission. Knowing the organization started because of Erine Gray’s personal experience was incredibly impactful to her.

Her favorite part about working at Aunt Bertha is knowing she’s not just working for a faceless company. She’s inspired by the fact that every department within the company is working collectively to meet people where they are and to serve them with dignity and ease. Aunt Bertha has taught Erica to advocate for herself professionally and has helped her become more adaptable and team-oriented.

Anthonee Esparza, Associate Business Analyst

Anthonee began his career at Aunt Bertha as a Data Quality Specialist and now uses his expertise as an Associate Business Analyst. Anthonee connected to Aunt Bertha because of our mission. His favorite part about working at Aunt Bertha is knowing that the platform is helping make people’s lives easier by providing support to those who may not have any. He enjoys working with others who believe in the same mission.

Aunt Bertha has helped Anthonee learn a wide variety of skills, both technical and inter-personal. The knowledge and experience that he gained during his time at Aunt Bertha shapes Anthonee’s career now and his future endeavors.

Keith Young, Production Support Engineer

Keith began his career at Aunt Bertha as a Data Quality Specialist and now uses his expertise as a Production Support Engineer. Before working at Aunt Bertha, Keith was a Field Assistant for a soil scientist at the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. While reading through job listing after job listing, he was struck by Aunt Bertha’s posting because of the mission. He was excited to be part of a company that provides a valuable platform that gives people tools to mitigate and overcome real hardships. Aunt Bertha has helped Keith in his career development by providing a collaborative and supportive environment with endless learning opportunities.

The Data Operations team has been instrumental in our company’s growth. A big challenge when growing a company is finding great people. At Aunt Bertha, however, we have a pool of amazing folks right here that we look to promote first.


Tackling Health & Hunger in East Austin

February 15, 2019 in Team

by Lauren Major, Data Quality Specialist

Each day in America, 40 million people don’t know where their next meal will come from (Feeding America). Families and individuals across the country are struggling to find and buy healthy food, and the struggle is often worsened for people with specific health needs, like diabetes, or other factors like income, race, or even location. In fact, 23 million Americans live in food deserts, more than a mile away from a supermarket (United States Department of Agriculture).

In Austin’s Travis County, these factors mean that 15% of the population is food insecure, including 21% of all children in the county, according to Austin’s Office of Sustainability.

 This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Tackling-Hunger-1.jpg

This past week, the Aunt Bertha Data team took a morning off from researching social services to do our part to help people in our community by volunteering at a food pantry run by the Austin City Health Department. Nearly 100 families came to get food– a combination of fresh produce and bread. The Health Department also offered on-site screening services for participants, including blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

At the food pantry, we saw families with young children, seniors, single adults, and generally a very diverse population. Any of the participants could have been my neighbors, my family, or anybody I could meet in the street. There are thousands of food pantries across the country, serving unique populations in need of some extra help. Just on Aunt Bertha, we list more than 9,000 food pantries spanning across the country, and we are constantly adding more. This means that every day in America, tens of thousands of people are visiting food pantries so they can feed themselves and their families, and I am so happy that we are able to connect people in need with food in their community.

 

 

 

During the event, after the bread and dessert items were long gone, We got a chance to talk about health and hunger with the staff from Austin Public Health’s Blackland Neighborhood center. They visit the Turner Roberts Recreation Center every month to provide needed groceries to the community. The staff was able to give us some insight into what the Austin City Public Health department is seeing in our communities.

One of the health department’s main focuses is related to special health needs, like diabetes. In food deserts especially, healthy food can be hard to find, and even more difficult if someone needs a specialized diet. They tackle health and hunger holistically, providing food, specialized healthcare, and even financial assistance to improve the city’s health outcomes. This comprehensive approach is needed to ensure the cycle of hunger ends. Someone with diabetes, for instance, might be able to access food or afford some food, but they might not have the knowledge or funds available to access the types of food they need in order to stay healthy in the long term.

The Austin City Health Department provides social services such as food assistance, bus passes, counseling, health screenings, pregnancy tests, flu shots, and much more in six neighborhood centers across the city. The city also has satellite locations in more isolated communities, especially low-income areas and food deserts, where they provide food to community members in need.

If you’re interested in volunteering to provide Fresh Food For Families at Turner Roberts Recreation Center, register here on the United Way Austin website. For more information about the work the Blackland Neighborhood Center is doing, visit them here.

Part 3: A Blog Series on the Highly Anticipated CHRONIC Care Act

February 6, 2019 in Medicare

So What’s Going to be Reimbursed?

By Bella Kirchner, Special Projects Manager

As we’ve written about previously in Part One of this series, one of the most significant changes in healthcare reimbursement was CMS’ (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) promise to start reimbursing Medicare Advantage plans for non-medical benefits beginning in 2020. Previously, supplemental benefits reimbursed by CMS for chronically ill beneficiaries had to be health-related services but they expanded that definition in the CHRONIC Care Act, passed back in April 2018, by stating that covered services “may not be limited to being primarily health related benefits.” Now referring to these supplemental benefits as Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill (SSBCI), CMS recently provided more clarification in January 2019. Some of the main takeaways:

  • Permanent home modifications aren’t going to be reimbursed but food-related benefits will be; and
  • CMS is encouraging Medicare Advantage Plans and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to work closely with another to address social determinants of health.

Defining Non-Medical Benefits

While CMS previously released additional information around uniformity rules and qualifying conditions related to SSBCI (which we summarized in Part Two of our series), health plans and industry experts have been waiting for further clarification on what’s actually considered a non-medical related benefit.

Some speculated that home modifications might end up being covered, but the document states that the non-medical benefits “may not include capital or structural improvements to the home of the enrollee that could potentially increase property value (e.g., permanent ramps, and widening hallways or doorways)…”. Although this leaves out reimbursement for major structural projects, this means that there is still some room for non-permanent solutions, such as temporary ramps or assistance with moving furnishings.

The document also includes several examples of what will be allowed for reimbursement, including the following:

  • Transportation for non-medical needs;
  • Home-delivered meals (beyond just post-discharge from a hospital visit); and
  • Food and produce.

It will be interesting to see how “food and produce” will be billed for, how these goods will be provided, and how they will be reimbursed.

While all of this information provides some clarification, questions still remain around other items and services, such as air conditioners, pest control, and mold removal. Where will CMS land on reimbursing for these services?

New Partners: Health Plans and Community-Based Organizations

In addition to clarification around benefits, the document also briefly discusses the potential role Community Based Organizations (CBOs) may take in the new reimbursement landscape. Coordinated care Medicare Advantage (MA) plans (HMOs, POSs, PPOs, SNPs) are already obligated to “coordinate MA benefits with community and social services generally available in the area served by the MA plan.”1 In addition to care coordination, CMS outlines two other ways in which these types of plans can partner with CBOs:

  • Plans can contract with CBOs to provide these new supplemental benefits; and
  • CBOs can help the plan determine if a member meets eligibility requirements for supplemental benefits.  

The continued push for health care plans and CBOs to work closely together is just more evidence of CMS’ growing interest in tackling social determinants of health.

CMS also states that Medicare Advantage plans must make sure they have rigorous and objective criteria for determining eligibility for SSBCI. They must also “maintain detailed documentation” to ensure that all patients are screened equally. Since CBOs will be able to help them with eligibility, they will have to think of ways to ensure that screening and documentation follow these requirements.

The Impact

One consequence of the allowances set forth by CMS is that the relationship between the health plan, healthcare provider, and CBOs becomes extremely important. If done right, this systemic approach to social determinants will mean that more people will get the social services they need outside of the doctor’s office, with support from both their health plan and their community.

Note: CMS is currently taking comments on the Proposals and Draft Letter through March 1, 2019. You can find more information here.

Check out part four of our blog series: The Rising Prominence of Community Based Organizations


1https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2010-title42-vol3/pdf/CFR-2010-title42-vol3-sec422-112.pdf

Aunt Bertha’s Screener Has Arrived!

January 29, 2019 in Announcements, Intake
by Erica Rodriguez, Community Engagement Coordinator

As a Program Manager, you’ve been through this scenario more times than you can count…

Your organization receives a referral or a request for services and your instinct is to immediately reach out to see how you can help the person being referred. However, you don’t have enough information to determine if the person needing help is actually eligible for your organization’s services!

Skip the frustrating, time-consuming back & forth with our new, fully customizable Screener.

This screening form is associated with your program listing and lets you gauge the eligibility of applicants as referrals to your organization are initiated.

We built the Screener to help Community Based Organizations listed on Aunt Bertha’s closed loop referral platform accomplish a few goals:

  • Spend less time qualifying people by asking the right questions, right away
  • Provide a next step to folks who may be screened as ineligible
  • Display a customized list of alternative resources or directions to ineligible applicants
  • View impact through free analytic reporting, including your applicants’ submissions, status, and answer details

Aunt Bertha’s Screener includes:

  • Over 80 standard questions to select from
  • The ability to create and customize your own questions
  • A ‘Qualified Applicants View’ so your organization can stay focused on just those applicants you’re actively working with
  • And much more!

Aunt Bertha’s Screener is a completely free feature—all you have to do to activate it is claim your program listing and then edit your program’s contact settings!

If you’d like an in-depth tour of the tool to learn how you can put it to work for your organization, click here to schedule a demonstration with an Aunt Bertha team member!

Learn more about Aunt Bertha’s Screener here.

Customer Story: A UMass-ive Success!

January 29, 2019 in Partners
By Trudie Bruno, Customer Success Manager

At Aunt Bertha, every single organization, community program, and user holds a very special place in our heart and, more importantly, in our network! Without this network, we could not connect people needing help (Seekers) with the programs that serve them. In the success story below, we highlight the partnership between UMass Memorial Health Care and Reliant Medical Group (UMass Reliant).

UMass Reliant is a partnership with a unique background that serves Worcester County, MA, an ethnically and linguistically diverse community spread across central Massachusetts. The partnership formed with a vision of improving the health of their communities by bridging the gap between community partners and patients with collaboration across the continuum of care.

The UMass Reliant project currently serves thousands of people through their platform, and partnership workshops have engaged many community based organizations (CBOs) in their service area, promoting collaboration across the continuum of care with more innovation yet to come. We celebrate their momentum and also emphasize the importance of learning from their key areas of focus:


Design a clear, strategic vision.

Before UMass Reliant discovered Aunt Bertha, their team set the stage for success by laying out a clear vision. They gathered input from their local CBOs and the ultimate goal of the project was shaped by the collaboration and inclusion of their community.

Collaborate in new ways.

Collaboration was a focus across the full span of the project, from vision to execution. The partnership is formed by a collaboration between two distinct health systems—UMass Memorial Health Care and Reliant Medical Group. Two health organizations in the same service area may typically be fierce competitors, yet in this story two such systems have partnered with each other, putting the community first and promoting collaboration across the continuum of care.

Connect and engage with CBOs.

UMass Reliant made a strategic investment by including CBOs in the design of the project and promoting CBO engagement in training, program claiming, and closing the loop on referrals. The partnership has continued to emphasize outreach to CBOs, providing trainings and support to program staff using the platform.

Meet the community where they are.

UMass Reliant recognized the linguistic diversity in their community and the associated need for program information available in many languages. A key requirement for them in selecting the Aunt Bertha Platform was the ability to present information in over 100 languages.

Spread the word.

UMass Reliant emphasizes promoting the communityHELP platform with their community. Most notably, they printed colorful notecards in more than seven languages with information about the platform for staff and CBOs to distribute.

The UMass Reliant partnership and the ultimate product delivered through communityHELP is uniquely powerful thanks to dedication to a strategic vision, collaboration across the project, CBO outreach and buy-in, and promoting the resource in the community.  There is still more work to be done, including designing additional incentives for CBOs, regular workshops and trainings, and tailoring programs to specific community needs. We’re excited to follow their progress and network growth!

Cool Visual of the Month!

January 28, 2019 in Data

This map shows the breakout of our 1.6 million users who searched for free and reduced cost services on Aunt Bertha during the first six months of 2018. Because we list programs in every Zip Code across the United States, you can see that searches originated from every part of the country, from urban metros to rural areas. Brighter shaded regions indicate a heavier concentration of searches, such as in the northeast corridor, Central Texas, and Central Florida.

One of the most important metrics for a social services software provider is the number of end users at a given time. The more people there are searching for help in one place, the more high quality resource providers (Community Based Organizations) there are actively monitoring incoming applicants from the platform. This will, in turn, draw even more end users who have a great experience, continuing to build a self-reinforcing network.

Aunt Bertha is, by many factors, the most utilized platform of any resource and referral system in the United States with over 1.6 million Seekers nationwide, and continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. We also host the largest network of Community Based Organizations on our platform. By joining this network made up of an installed user base already sending and receiving high volumes of referrals, you’ll be able to help your community immediately.

The Slow (and Steady) Process of Network Building

January 28, 2019 in Partners
by Jaffer Traish, VP of Partnerships

Building a network. It’s a familiar term that in practice can lay the foundation of disruptive ventures. Our modern day banking, retail, political, and social networks thrive on the compounding impact of a growing network effect.

I learned about the power of building a network in the urban streets. As a kid growing up outside Boston, MA I suffered from asthma—most of the little league kids had asthma just like me. Not too far from us was one of the largest coal-fired power plants in New England, and, as would later be confirmed years later, one of the dirtiest. Harvard research suggested 159 premature deaths per year attributed to the pollution.

I took action. I pounded the pavements of Charleston, MA and knocked on the doors of homes, small businesses, and local nonprofits to build a network of support to require scrubbers in the plant. The power plant company paid local families thousands of dollars to wash soot off their homes and cars and eventually complied with state scrubber regulation. The experience taught me that a grassroots network of families, businesses, and community organizations creating change could (and did) help these families for generations.

Sometimes, solutions to big problems are less obvious, incremental, and start at the grassroots level.

If we want to improve community health and outcomes, we need to think beyond healthcare. We need to remove barriers to basic needs and increase the affordability of healthcare & security. We need to improve nutrition literacy. We need to expand affordable housing.

Many Community Based Organizations (CBOs) exist to provide free and reduced cost services nationwide. Many are privately funded, some are government programs, and some are payer or healthcare system funded as well. We have a tremendous opportunity to build community organization networks. We can further their impact by improving the eligibility process, appointment management, referral management, capacity management, and more.

With the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services demonstrating social determinant frameworks and advocating for removing HIPAA barriers to care coordination, health systems & payers are adopting a social referral model. Healthcare isn’t the only entry point to this network. Local county programs, corrections facilities, and colleges are all entry points that surface personal needs.

I’m excited to see traction across the country in many industries focusing on surfacing needs, providing help, and measuring social support outcomes. This traction will help CBOs maximize their delivery efficiency and even their financial position and power to expand. Electronic Health Record systems are paying attention, with new social care modules and workflows to be released this year and next.

I’m excited that there are healthcare system leaders emerging in this space, such as the Camden Coalition, a unique UMass/Reliant partnership, Atrium Health, Sutter Health, and many others. These organizations are bringing CBOs to their table in large numbers to discuss ways of working together to help more people, surface needs collectively, and empower people to help themselves directly as well.

As we think about wellness, both inside clinical walls and out in the community, we should pay close attention to this emerging network—a social care network of closely aligned Community Based Organizations providing some of the most important services to people in need, with dignity and ease.

The Government Shutdown: Searches and Resources

January 25, 2019 in Announcements, Data
by Bella Kirchner, Special Projects Manager

The longest government shutdown – 35 days – is coming to a (for now, temporary) halt. However, this has left more than 800,000 federal employees going without their second paychecks since the shutdown started, leaving some unable to pay for basic resources.

Many federal employee are living paycheck to paycheck. A study by the University of Michigan1 on federal and non-federal workers impacted by the 2013 government shutdown showed that the median worker only had enough cash or liquid assets to pay for eight days of average household expenses. The bottom third of the workers studied had on average a $0 balance in their combined savings and checking accounts the day before they received their paycheck.

There have been numerous news stories showing federal employees waiting in lines at food banks, leaning on diaper banks for diapers and wipes, hoping for discounts or extensions from utility companies, and relying on breaks at the gas station. They are struggling to cover their basic needs.

And the effects of the shutdown reach beyond just federal employees, with federal contractors and those seeking services from federally-funded programs feeling the impact as well.

Here at Aunt Bertha, we think that the uptick in searches in the Washington, DC area in recent weeks may be related to the shutdown. Below you can see a significant spike in searches starting in the second and third weeks of January for food resources, diapers, utility bill assistance, and help paying for gas.

Given all of this, we want to make sure federal workers can easily find the resources they need. We’ve added a number of programs specifically related to the shutdown as well as a special page on our site that consolidates many of those programs.

One of the programs listed that’s helping impacted federal workers.

And as always, anybody in need can use our site to search for free!

References

1https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S004727271830118X?via%3Dihub via https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/22/furloughed-federal-workers-to-miss-second-paycheck-this-week.html

Erine Gray Selected as TED Senior Fellow

January 23, 2019 in Announcements

Our founder, Erine Gray, has been named a TED2019 Senior Fellow, joining a class of innovators from around the world selected for their extraordinary work and contributions to the TED community. A full list of the new TED Fellows and Senior Fellows is available at ted.com/fellows.

Aunt Bertha founder Erine Gray at TEDxHamburg in 2014.

“To be selected with this group of talented artists, journalists and activists is just humbling. I’m in awe of the other fellows in this year’s class, and I hope to be able to contribute as much as I can to the broader TED Fellows community,” said Gray. “I hope by sharing our story, we can continue to highlight American poverty that exists, and work together with other like-minded organizations to help solve some of these very solvable problems.”

Erine is Founder & CEO of Aunt Bertha, a public benefit corporation that connects all people in need and the programs that serve them (with dignity and ease). People in need can find free and reduced cost social services by entering their Zip Code into auntbertha.com. The company was founded in 2010 and now boasts a user base of 1.6 million people, and coverage in every Zip Code across the US. Aunt Bertha employs 60 team members based mostly in Austin, TX.

“We are thrilled to announce the newest class of TED Fellows, who give voice to some of the most exciting ideas we’ve seen in the program’s 10-year history,” said TED Fellows director Shoham Arad. “The Fellows program is committed to using its resources and platform to help scale Fellows’ ideas and impact, and we are so excited to have these Senior Fellows become an even more integral part of our global community.”

Founded in 2009, the TED Fellows program has 472 Fellows from 96 countries, whose talks have been viewed more than 250 million times overall. In its ten-year history, the TED Fellows program has created a powerful, far-reaching network made up of scientists, doctors, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, journalists and beyond—leading to many meaningful and unexpected collaborations. The TED Fellows has also yielded a wide variety of collaborative projects, including PEEK, the social enterprise that recently raised a $1 billion fund to eradicate preventable blindness in the developing world; BRCK, the technology company that builds mobile WiFi routers that can work anywhere, even in the harshest conditions; and Fine Acts, the international collective bringing together artists and activists to instigate social change.

How does Aunt Bertha get its data?

January 18, 2019 in Team

by Erine Gray, Founder & CEO of Aunt Bertha

In the fall of 2010, I started Aunt Bertha. Like many founders, I was Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. I was the only programmer, and the very first data entry person.

When auntbertha.com first went live, it only served the greater Austin area. Many late nights, I would sit alone in the tiny office I rented near my house and enter relevant programs I found into an Excel spreadsheet. Once I had a list that was big enough to get started, I wrote a basic Python script that could read a file once it was uploaded into a web form, and then I would run another script that put the data into our back-end database.

Erine Gray, Founder & CEO of Aunt Bertha, Photo Credit: Bella Kirchner

In the early days I added those programs myself, and since then every program added to our database was added by a real life human being.

More than eight years later, our company boasts a nationwide user base of over 1.6 million people, 150 customers, and 60 employees. We touch every Zip Code in the US with no fewer than 700 programs in a given county—we treat large cities, small towns, and rural areas equally.

That’s a Lot of Programs!

You’re correct, that is a lot! And we’re proud of the hard work it took to get here. We’re also proud of the fact that we did not cut corners. All of our programs have been entered by real humans, not bots. Some have thought: “My gosh, there’s no way you entered all of those programs, that’s a lot!” Is it really impossible? Let’s do a little math.

There are 260 workdays in a year. If an organization can add, say, 100 new programs in a day, that means that in one year it can add 26,000 programs. In just one year! Aunt Bertha’s been around for 8+ years. Now let’s magnify that a little—we currently have a Data Operations team of 20 people who are constantly entering programs. As you can see, the numbers add up pretty quickly.

Building a Team and a Culture

Once we started to grow our customer base we knew we wanted to grow our Austin-based Data Operations team. We were able to significantly invest in this team since 2016, and we now have around 20 folks who are all based in our Austin office. They’re a smart, fun, diverse group—and they’re the future leaders of our company. This team makes up the largest department in the company and is dedicated to researching information, entering new programs, and responding to changes. They shape the user experience through the programs they vet, the information they distill, and the logical organization of services they tag.

Photo Credit: Bella Kirchner

It would be far easier and cheaper for us to only rely on technology like some of our competitors are doing. But we’ve taken the harder path to build a team made of humans—not robots. We do this for a couple reasons: the quality is far superior, and these entry-level positions provide for us a way to find the next generation of talent to join other parts of our organization.

Growth Opportunities

When we decided to grow our Data Operations team, we wanted to have a way to:

  • Build and maintain a comprehensive, nationwide database of CBOs;
  • Provide a flexible work environment for people in Austin; and
  • Provide growth opportunities for rising stars in other areas of the company.

After several years, we’ve seen entry-level Data Quality Specialists learn the operation and grow to help other teams. Graduates of our Data Operations team are now Software Developers, Reporting Specialists, Business Analysts, and Community Engagement Managers.

A challenge of growing any organization is finding great people. What an excellent way to get to know each other—both for the employees—and the hiring managers. To sum this up, it just makes good business sense to design the organization this way.

Things to Consider

You’re likely reading this blog post because you’re interested in the work we’re doing, and odds are your mission is similar to ours. I share some of our history so you can see how our model and approach are fundamentally different from any software provider in our space. If you’re just beginning to evaluate search and referral platforms for your organization, we can provide some guideposts for you. We know it’s a process that can be mind boggling. There’s a lot of buzz out there right now—and some vendors have an incentive to make it sound more complex than it actually is.

Whether or not you do business with Aunt Bertha, I hope that our learnings from more than eight years of doing this work properly informs your decision in finding the right technology partner for your organization.

Who’s the audience?

One thing to look closely for in a Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) software vendor is whether end users, the people in need of social supports, seem to be their most important audience. This is usually not apparent by what the vendor says, but how they run their business. Decisions they’ve made in regards to their product, pricing model, privacy controls, and what they’re investing resources into can be extremely telling.

It’s important to build tools for Social Workers, Care Coordinators and others to help people in need. However, it’s also just as important to build software that allows people to help themselves. One question to ask a potential vendor:

Can people use your platform without having to log in?

Sometimes people in need aren’t ready for the world to know they’re having a hard time. We see hundreds of thousands of searches every month and people are looking for help for things that they don’t want others to know about. We take that very seriously, and so should the solution you choose. Another question to ask:

Why do you require people in need to log in?

As mentioned earlier, people want to figure out what’s available before they’re ready to identify themselves. We learned this lesson in our very first year of existence. And ever since 2011, logging in is optional on our platform. What we’ve learned is that people will explore anonymously. And when they’d like to connect, they will create an account when they’re ready.

Given that other systems do not work this way, and what we know about our users, it makes me wonder how much volume they are seeing on their platform. I’d suggest asking them how many users they have—a good amount of users is a great proxy for experience.

You may also find that the company you are evaluating bases their pricing on the number of accounts on their system. Not all of these vendors price this way, but some do.

What about 211?

When we first started, we heard about concerns from some 211 call centers that feared that an easy-to-use online search platform like auntbertha.com was a threat to their call center model. We don’t see it that way.

My view is that if people find what they need on auntbertha.com and can do so in the privacy of their own home—what a great thing. And if self-service search on auntbertha.com drives down the number of calls to a 211 call center, that frees up call center staff to do other things that can help people in more meaningful ways—like getting them enrolled in health insurance.

In some cities, this is happening already as United Ways and other organizations are looking for ways to go deeper. For example, instead of telling a caller where the nearest shelter is, agents can help someone fill out an application for an affordable housing program.

“Pay us and we’ll build it!”

If you ever hear this uttered by a potential vendor, take caution. Building a network of participating resource providers and governments is difficult and takes a long time (we’ve been in it longer than anybody). It requires hundreds of organizations to agree to use a software platform. It also requires a large group of people to keep this information current. You may have received proposals from vendors to include a license fee with add-ons like “Network Builders,” or “Consultants.” Simply put, they’re trying to get you to pay for something they already should have invested in.

To keep it clean, and to keep our mission first and foremost, we don’t charge our customers for our data acquisition process and maintenance.

Scraping is Never Okay

Some of our competitors try and take shortcuts by scraping auntbertha.com. We know this because we evaluate our logs and are able to identify these bots as scrapers (see below for an example).

Searches to Utah program listings on auntbertha.com. We experienced malicious scraping activity of our Utah-based records during the evaluation period for a large healthcare system in the state recently.

Scraping is when a computer program pulls valuable content from a website. Scrapers reproduce the unauthorized content under the pretense that it’s original. When our competitors do this, it tells us a lot about what they’re doing. In the example above, we believe that this activity coincided with an in-person demonstration a competitor had with a large health system last fall.

If you are evaluating a vendor and you’re interested in finding out whether or not they may have scraped auntbertha.com in preparation for your demo, please just reach out. We’re happy to share our logs with you. You may not pick us, which is okay, but you may find it helpful to know that the vendor you select strives towards integrity (and doesn’t scrape).

Meet the Team

As you select a partner for your project, I’d encourage you to ask to meet their Data Operations team if possible. If you’re interested in meeting Aunt Bertha’s Data Operations team, come visit Austin as part of your evaluation process. A quick plane trip may be worth it—and also, just so you know, Austin’s a great place to catch some live music and some great food (we won’t tell your boss).

In Conclusion

One of our leading taglines in the early days was that “Aunt Bertha picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off.” This couldn’t be more true today, quite literally. We’ve seen an uptick in our search volumes as a result of the recent government shutdown.

We’re inspired by the work you do in your community, whether it be treating patients, connecting people in need to social supports, running a local nonprofit, providing social services, helping your clients lead healthy lives, and so much more. You make up the backbone of your community and we’d like to support you in any way that we can.

Here’s our favorite quote—we put it in all of our job postings.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

We’d be excited to have you join our network, which makes you part of our “small group of committed citizens.”

Part 2: A Blog Series on the Highly Anticipated CHRONIC Care Act

January 11, 2019 in Medicare

Which Medicare Beneficiaries Get Non-Medical Benefits?

by Bella Kirchner, Special Projects Manager

As healthcare costs continue to rise1, health insurance companies, including The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), are thinking about ways to incorporate social needs into their reimbursement models. Studies have shown that addressing these needs leads to improved health outcomes which, in turn, lowers the cost it takes to care for patients2. CMS is strongly committed to this idea; according to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex M. Azar II: “Just like how every patient is different in healthcare, every person has unique social service needs—and we are intent on designing models that connect them to the services they need, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach.” 3

As we wrote about in Part One of this series, one of the most significant moves towards changing these reimbursement models to include social needs was the passage of The CHRONIC (Creating High-quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic) Care Act, which specifically affects Medicare Advantage (MA) plans.  Previously, supplemental benefits reimbursed by CMS for chronically ill beneficiaries had to be health-related services used to “prevent, cure or diminish an illness or injury.” The CHRONIC Care Act changed that definition to cover services that provide “a reasonable expectation of improving or maintaining the health or overall function of the chronically ill enrollee and may not be limited to being primarily health related benefits.”4 This is a significant move in the industry — reimbursement for non-health (i.e., social needs)  services.

Many questions have arisen about how to put this into practice and one of the main concerns health plans have had relates to CMS uniformity requirements for Medicare Advantage plans. These requirements stipulate that beneficiaries residing in the same service area of the MA plan must be offered “a uniform premium, with uniform benefits and level of cost-sharing throughout the plan’s service area, or segment of service area.”5 This has been interpreted to mean that, per plan, whatever is offered to one beneficiary must also be offered to all beneficiaries in the service area. The one-size-fits-all nature of old uniformity requirements was a major hurdle for payers to reimburse services that were not purely medical in nature. The fear was that any beneficiary could claim a need for a social need service, potentially costing the health plan a good deal of money.

However, in April 2018, CMS released clarification around the uniformity rule for Medicare Advantage plans.6 They defined areas for flexibility with the MA uniformity requirements, writing, “We have determined that providing access to services (or specific cost sharing for services or items) that are tied to health status or disease state in a manner that ensures that similarly situated individuals are treated uniformly is consistent with the uniformity requirement in the Medicare Advantage (MA) regulations.” This is a reinterpretation of the rule in that it allows for flexibility specifically related to “health status or disease state.” Starting in 2020, rather than having to offer certain supplemental benefits to ALL members, MA plans can offer them uniformly to the members who meet the specific medical criteria defined by the MA plan.

Insurance companies must design these benefits using “medical criteria that are objective and measurable.”6 Beneficiaries will also be required to be diagnosed with the condition(s) by a plan provider. In order to ensure that the uniformity requirements are fair and do not discriminate, CMS will be reviewing all benefit design plans.

Before the CHRONIC Care Act, this flexibility would have been reserved solely for supplemental medical-related benefits (e.g., tobacco cessation classes for COPD patients, non-emergent transportation for heart failure patients). However, with the passage of the CHRONIC Care Act, those supplemental benefits now include non-medical services. To take advantage of both the new reimbursement models and the reinterpretation of uniformity rules, Medicare Advantage plans should design benefit packages that tie those non-medical benefits to “health status of disease state.” What might this look like?  

  • For asthmatics, provide an air conditioner benefit;
  • For patients with COPD of other lung diseases, provide a mold removal benefit;
  • For patients with amputation caused by diabetes, provide a home modification benefit; or
  • For patients with dementia, provide a home safety benefit.

The list could go on and on. Over time, we predict that insurance plans will start to provide more social need benefits for patients. While there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered, this is an exciting start.

Check out part three of our blog series: So What’s Going to be Reimbursed?

References

1https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/health-spending-u-s-compare-countries/#item-relative-size-wealth-u-s-spends-disproportionate-amount-health

2https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa073350

3https://www.hhs.gov/about/leadership/secretary/speeches/2018-speeches/the-root-of-the-problem-americas-social-determinants-of-health.html

4Willink, A., & DuGoff, E. H. (2018). Integrating medical and nonmedical services – The promise and pitfalls of the CHRONIC care act. New England Journal of Medicine, 378(23), 2153-2155. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1803292

5https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/42/422.2

6Federal Register (Vol 83, No 73, 16480-16486) https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2018-04-16/pdf/2018-07179.pdf

Part 1: A Blog Series on the Highly Anticipated CHRONIC Care Act

October 23, 2018 in Medicare

How Non-Medical Benefits Will Become Free

by Bella Kirchner, Special Projects Manager

Healthcare costs in the United States are the highest in the world and are continuing to rise. On average, the US spends $10,000+ per person on healthcare, 31% higher than the next highest-paying country1. Because of this crisis, insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid Programs, are moving away from the traditional reimbursement model that pays for volume of services towards one that focuses on value — improving a patient’s health while reducing the cost of care and increasing satisfaction for all participants. The long-standing volume model pays based on number and type of services provided, regardless of patients’ health outcomes, quality of care, or cost to the system. With the new value model, doctors and healthcare organizations have financial incentives to keep patients healthier and control costs, which can be done by providing high-quality care and coordinating better social care. To boil it all down — keep patients healthier and you get paid more.

How Do You Keep Patients Healthier?

For many decades, the healthcare industry has focused on using clinical medical care (e.g., office visits, medications, hospitalizations) to improve the health of their patients. However, research shows that much of a person’s health is actually not determined by clinical healthcare, but by a person’s individual behaviors and social & environmental factors, often referred to as social determinants of health2

Ignoring and underinvesting in these factors explains to some degree why health indicators in the US lag behind so many other countries3. When you don’t take care of a patient’s basic needs, their overall health suffers. The realization that addressing these factors has major impacts on both health outcomes and the cost of care has led to changes in both care and reimbursement models.

Can Legislation Help?

One of the most significant moves towards changing these reimbursement models was the passage of an act that affects Medicare Advantage plans. These plans are offered by private insurance companies to Medicare-eligible individuals and offer additional benefits beyond traditional Medicare, such as dental, vision, and hearing coverage.  The CHRONIC (Creating High-quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic) Care Act, passed by Congress on February 9, 2018, changes the way these supplemental benefits provided through Medicare Advantage plans are defined4. Previously,  supplemental benefits reimbursed by CMS (The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services) for chronically ill beneficiaries had to be health-related services used to “prevent, cure or diminish an illness or injury.”  The CHRONIC Care Act changes that definition to cover services that provide “a reasonable expectation of improving or maintaining the health or overall function of the chronically ill enrollee and may not be limited to being primarily health related benefits.” 5  This is a significant move in the industry — reimbursement for non-health services.    

What Might “Non-Medical” Services Include?

Looking back at the wording, there is a lot of room for interpretation. The act simply states that the service either maintains or improves a patient’s health and does not need to be completely health related. Some examples of these services are:

  • Home modifications, such as ramps, grab bars, and support stalls;
  • Air conditioners for asthmatic patients;
  • Mold removal for emphysema patients;
  • Pest control for homebound patients;
  • Food delivery for recently discharged or homebound patients; and
  • Transportation to medical and social services appointments.

All of these services aim to address the social, environmental, and/or behavioral factors that impact a patient’s health outcomes.

How Can Patients’ Needs be Managed?

As the industry moves towards value (lower costs & better care), health insurance plans and healthcare organizations have realized there is a need for more intensive follow-up, coordination, and care management after the patient leaves the doctor’s office.6 Health plans and providers are hiring nurses and case managers to help coordinate the various elements that are involved in a patient’s care, while keeping an eye on managing costs, in order to lead to better outcomes.7, 8

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of care managers is expected to increase by 20 percent between 2016 and 2026.9 Currently care managers focus mostly on medical care and services, but as reimbursement models change, these are the workers who will help bridge the gap between medical and non-medical care. In addition to coordinating medical care, they’ll start working with non-profit social service providers, government agencies, and even private vendors that provide services that can be purchased on a members’ behalf. There are going to be challenges in this effort to connect patients to these services and vendors, such as:

  • How does the healthcare provider (be it nurse, physician, care manager, social worker) know what services are covered?
  • How do they know what resources are available and how do they vet those resources to ensure they are getting good value (reasonable cost and high quality)?
  • How do they know the patient has received the service?
  • How do they bill the insurance company for the service since the service has been provided outside of their care?

The Changing Landscape and the Role of Health Insurance Plans

The CHRONIC Care Act only impacts reimbursement for non-medical services provided by Medicare Advantage plans, but what about the rest of the health insurance industry?  Will this trend spill over to private plans? We can see that there is growing interest both from patients and payers in these new types of plans, as evidenced by the rapid growth in Medicare Advantage enrollment, which has continued to increase over the last decade (see chart).10

Why does this uptick in enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans matter in the larger scheme of the health insurance industry and value-based reimbursement? When CMS rolls out new initiatives, the private insurance industry tends to follow. This can be seen in the recent years with the overall adoption of value-based programs by private plans, following CMS’s lead.11 As CMS makes policy changes that allow for reimbursement of non-medical services, private plans are likely to start making similar changes.

When this shift happens, this means that health plans will be at the core of fulfilling non-medical needs to patients, by either acting as the facilitator between patient and service vendor or by reimbursing healthcare organizations to do the same.  

Conclusion

The healthcare reimbursement landscape is changing with the realization that addressing social, environmental, and behavioral needs are key to improving health outcomes and lowering healthcare costs. Insurance companies, starting with Medicare Advantage plans, will soon be financially incented to either 1) coordinate the connection between patients and these services directly or 2) reimburse those healthcare organizations that are spending more time with patients to help them get their basic needs met.

This is all based on a bet. The bet is that if people’s basic needs are met, they’ll be healthier. If people are healthier, healthcare providers will make more money because health plans are incentivizing them to go the extra mile. If people are healthier, they’re less likely to strain resources or end up in the hospital, racking up huge medical costs.

If healthcare organizations that are talking to these patients in person every day are going the extra mile to connect with patients on a human level, and to connect patients to social care services too, like food delivery programs, or home modifications, then those healthcare organizations should realize cost savings (or bonuses). If they do realize these savings, they’ll have more money to hire case managers and care coordinators. With more case managers and care coordinators on staff there is a double bottom line effect: they make more money by helping people live healthier lives. A win for the patient and a win for the healthcare organization.

Sound a little utopian? It probably is. But we can strive for Utopia. It’s a lovely place.

Check out part two of our blog series: Which Medicare Beneficiaries Get Non-Medical Benefits?

References

1https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/health-spending-u-s-compare-countries/#item-relative-size-wealth-u-s-spends-disproportionate-amount-health

2https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa073350

3Woolf, S. H., and L. Y. Aron. 2013. The US health disadvantage relative to other high-income countries: Findings from a National Research Council/Institute of Medicine report. Journal of the American Medical Association 309(8):771-772.

4https://www.thescanfoundation.org/sites/default/files/chronic_care_act_brief_030718_final.pdf

5Willink, A., & DuGoff, E. H. (2018). Integrating medical and nonmedical services – The promise and pitfalls of the CHRONIC care act. New England Journal of Medicine, 378(23), 2153-2155. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1803292

6https://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/prevention-chronic-care/improve/coordination/caremanagement/index.html

7https://nursejournal.org/nursing-case-management/rn-case-manager-salary-and-job-outlook/

8https://www.nurse.com/blog/2014/09/11/what-is-the-difference-is-between-case-manager-and-care-manager/

9http://samstaff.com/growing-need-case-managers/

10https://www.kff.org/medicare/issue-brief/medicare-advantage-2017-spotlight-enrollment-market-update/

11https://healthpayerintelligence.com/news/private-payers-follow-cms-lead-adopt-value-based-care-payment

Announcing Appointment Scheduling

July 23, 2018 in Announcements, Intake

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

We always begin team meetings at Aunt Bertha with our mission statement — “To connect all people in need and the programs that serve them (with dignity and ease).” As part of that mission, we strive to build products that help Community Based Organizations (providers of socials services) streamline their processes, work together, and most importantly, save time so they can better meet the needs of the people they serve.

We consistently hear from Program Administrators that they lack insight into their colleagues’ schedules and consequently double (or triple) book intake appointments. This leaves professionals at these organizations overworked and the people they help, confused. We believe there is a better way.  

The Appointment Scheduling tool offers a way for claimed Community Based Organizations (CBOs) listed on Aunt Bertha to easily create, schedule, and manage appointments with people in need of services as a key step in their intake process. Managing appointments can be stressful (on both sides), time consuming, and expensive. Our tool is free and simple to use.

CBOs will save time, resources, and can:

  • benefit from a full history of their touch points with a person in need, including appointments, all on one platform;
  • easily show availability for appointments at all program locations;
  • book appointments on behalf of people in need, or allow them to book for themselves;
  • schedule appointments for colleagues;
  • save calendar invites to colleagues’ work calendars

People In need get the dignity of an immediate response and can:

  • easily see when and where their appointment is;
  • see what documents or identification they’ll need to bring to their appointment;
  • get reminders via email or text message so they never miss an important appointment.

Interested in adding appointment scheduling to your program listings on Aunt Bertha? We’re so glad! Just click below and our team will set you up. Reminder: Appointment Scheduling is a completely free feature — all you have to do is claim your program listing.

LEARN MORE

As always, we’d love your feedback on our new Appointment Scheduling tool. Please send your thoughts to community@auntbertha.com.

The Aunt Bertha Team Volunteers at Caritas of Austin

May 3, 2018 in Team

Caritas of Austin, a nonprofit organization focused on ending homelessness in Austin TX, works tirelessly to deliver hot lunches to people in need. Starting at 9:00am each morning, a dedicated team of volunteers works under the guidance of Jennifer Mattson (Head Chef) and Brandon Harrison (Food Services Assistant), endearingly referred to as “Sous Chef” by Jennifer. They prep the Community Kitchen to serve over 250 meals daily. For the past year and a half, Mattson and Harrison have built a well oiled machine that serves hot, nutritious meals to anyone who walks through their doors (Monday thru Friday, 11:00am-12:30pm). That’s right — anyone.

For all you planners out there, prepare to have your minds blown. The menu for each meal is determined by donations received at Caritas of Austin; yet, each morning, Mattson and Harrison walk into the kitchen unsure of what donations have come in the night before. That means their lunches (prepared for over 300 people) are planned, created, and prepped in a matter of hours. How’s that for thinking on your toes?

Last month, the Aunt Bertha team had the privilege of volunteering at the Caritas of Austin Community Kitchen for a day, and were humbled and in awe of the team’s dedication and fine-tuned process. Alongside Mattson, Harrison, and a handful of long time volunteers, we served entrees, salad, fresh fruit, hot rolls, and washed dishes. Every single person that walked through the door was served — a standard that Mattson and Harrison strive for every day.

Caritas of Austin’s oft-mispronounced name (pronounced “CARE – it – ahs”) means love or charity in Latin. Although their first priority is working with people to establish stable housing, many don’t realize they offer comprehensive wrap-around services including: food services (enter, Community Kitchen), education classes, job placement, and veterans assistance.

According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, 2,036 persons were homeless in Austin as of January 2017 — an 11% increase from 2015. That’s why these services are needed now more than ever in the Greater Austin community.

If you’re in the Austin area and are interested in volunteering with Caritas of Austin, please sign up on their website.

To find other community kitchens or meals in your area, please go to Aunt Bertha and select the “Food” category to search for programs serving your zip code.

By Meredith Englehart, Community Engagement Manager

 

Six-Part Blog Series: Mental Health & Horses

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“Most people don’t realize that horses are effective therapy animals beyond therapeutic riding, and are not aware of the vast differences between therapeutic riding and equine assisted psychotherapy.” —Emily Williams, Project Horse Empowerment Center (Purcellville, VA)

Project Horse Empowerment Center connects people in need of renewed hope and confidence with rehabilitated rescue horses, through innovative experiential learning programs and therapy services. The organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for both horses and humans, creating a unique community of mutual healing and benefit.

It all started with a rescue horse named Reeses. Reeses used to be a competitive athlete but her career ended with a dangerous fall. For reasons unknown to Project Horse, Reeses did not receive proper medical care and rehabilitation, leaving her physically disabled and no longer able to be ridden. Reeses was then sent to a breeding farm to be a broodmare, but when that didn’t produce results, she was deemed useless, turned out into a field, and forgotten.

Reeses was frightened and in very poor condition when the organization’s founder and Executive Director, Darcy Woessner, stumbled upon her. Reeses was not in sale condition and would never again be a riding horse, which left her in a dangerous situation. Woessner simply could not leave the horse there, so she purchased Reeses for a small price and began the slow rehabilitation process.

Reeses soon revealed an extraordinary ability to connect deeply with others, especially children and women. It quickly became apparent that, although Reeses could no longer be ridden, she had so much to offer through her quiet wisdom and nurturing support. Since no other programs existed where non-rideable horses could share their skills to help people, Reeses and Darcy founded Project Horse — a place where non-riding horses and humans needing support partner to find hope and mutual healing.

Over the past decade, Reeses and her herd have rescued, supported, and helped over 1,000 individuals of all ages and a wide variety of challenges.

“We recently moved to a new location that is more accessible, so we have been expanding our programming to include groups for veterans, the elderly, programs through Loudoun County Parks and Recreation, as well as servicing a growing number of individual therapy clients,” according to Williams.

A highlight for the organization in 2017? Being only one of eighteen nonprofits in the United States to receive a grant from VetsAid Foundation. With the grant from VetsAid and a matching corporate sponsorship from Lockheed Martin, Project Horse was able to launch their Warrior HerdTM initiative.

Warrior HerdTM is a free monthly program that focuses on strengthening connections between veterans and their families and enhancing resiliency. Warrior HerdTM offers workshops for couples, individuals, and families. During the summer of 2018, Project Horse will host a Warrior HerdTM Family Day for all members of the military (active, inactive, veterans, reservists) and their families. They will also host a week-long summer camp for children who have lost a parent in combat.

Project Horse has seen demand for individual therapy services nearly double this past year.

How You Can Help

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

Six-Part Blog Series: Combatting Homelessness

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“Most Americans are one to two paychecks from living on the street. It can happen to anyone.” —Roz Palmer, The Kitchen (Springfield, MO)

On any given night in 2017, 554,000 people were homeless in the United States. That’s just shy of the entire population of Springfield, MO, where The Kitchen’s mission is to prevent and end homelessness in the communities they serve by providing housing and stabilizing services with dignity and compassion.

“We’re trying to let people know that they are worthy of the help. Youth, or those living on the street sometimes don’t feel they’re worth the services, so our biggest challenge is just getting them in the door. We want people to know we work with everyone — from infants to the elderly. If you’re homeless, we work with you. We have youth programs, programs for at-risk and homeless veterans, programs for the chronically homeless, families, and the working poor,” said Palmer.

In 2017, The Kitchen housed more than 600 individuals. A third of those individuals were children under the age of 18.

One of those people was Belinda. Belinda was a registered Medical Assistant, but due to a brain injury, she was placed on leave from her job. Her Family & Medical Leave (FMLA) ran out, but Belinda still wasn’t cleared to work. After going through her savings, Belinda had to decide between her medication and a stable home. The Kitchen was able to provide Belinda a place to stay while helping her navigate through and apply for, disability benefits. She has since exited the program and is living on her own in one of The Kitchen’s affordable housing communities.

“We have a Housing First philosophy. We want to place someone in a home, then figure out the factors that may be leading to their homelessness. For some it may mean education, for some, sobriety. Our goal is that by the time they exit, they can do whatever “it” is on their own.”

How You Can Help

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

 

Six-Part Blog Series: Re-Entry with Dignity

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“The ultimate objective — beyond the measurable goals — is to help participants rebuild their sense of self-worth, dignity, and self-confidence.” —Austin Morreale, NeighborCorps Re-Entry Services (Highland Park, NJ)

Created by the youth pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, NeighborCorps Re-Entry Services’ mission is to work with individuals who are/were incarcerated in Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center (MCACC), helping them successfully transition back to their communities, thereby helping lower the rate of recidivism.

“In addition to the NeighborCorps staff, we utilize volunteers (called Navigators) to work with our participants. They both provide support and guidance to participants and their supportive relatives/friends along their re-entry journey, connecting them with community resources and helping them in the areas of gainful employment, personal development, and social integration,” according to Morreale.

The two biggest challenges NeighborCorps faces in their work: connecting participants to housing and employment. As Morreale explained, “unless a participant has supportive friends or family in the area with whom they can stay, it is incredibly difficult to find housing for participants given the lack of shelters in the area and the long waiting lists for those shelters.”

Additionally, “finding employers who will hire individuals with criminal histories is difficult, and when such an employer is found, securing a livable wage can be challenging. A large percentage of our participants are dependent on public transportation, but often the employers who hire ex-offenders aren’t easily accessible via public transportation. Or, if they are accessible, the participants find the cost of public transportation to their place of employment quickly eats up their hourly wage.”

After adding more staff members in 2017, Morreale said, “I think one of the things I’m proudest of [this year] is the steps we’ve taken on initiatives outside of the relationships with participants.”

One such initiative, a backpack drive for NeighborCorps participants, will extend to all individuals in the jail if successful.

As Morreale explained, “when an individual is released from MCACC, the belongings they had with them when they arrived at the jail are given back to them in a clear plastic bag. If that individual doesn’t have someone picking them up from jail on their release day, then they have to walk along Route 130 with the plastic bag clearly signaling they’ve just left incarceration to anyone who passes them. The backpack drive is a way to remove the stigma of the plastic bag for recently released individuals and hopefully give them a little bit of their dignity back as they take their first steps (literally) in their re-entry journey.”

How You Can Help

  • Become a Navigator! Learn more here.
  • Support efforts with a financial donation.
  • Educate yourself about criminal justice and re-entry issues and how their effects have an impact that reaches far beyond just the incarcerated individual.

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

 

Six-Part Blog Series: Standing with Women & Immigrants

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“Overall, our biggest wins are our client victories — numerous cases where the work of Her Justice, our network of volunteer lawyers, and the resilience of our clients have resulted in positive outcomes and life altering consequences for the women we serve.” —Sharon Rainey, Her Justice (New York City, NY)

In the current political climate, the threat of deportation of undocumented immigrants has spread panic in vulnerable communities. Many immigrants are afraid to reach out for help or engage with the courts or law enforcement. Her Justice stands with women living in poverty in New York City by recruiting and mentoring volunteer lawyers to provide free legal help and by addressing individual and systemic legal barriers. Her Justice fills a unique gap in NYC — providing legal assistance to women living in poverty facing high-stakes legal needs but cannot get help elsewhere.

We serve women in all five boroughs in NYC, with the majority of our clients residing in Queens. Brooklyn is a close second. “More than one out of every four Her Justice clients cannot access the legal system without an interpreter,” said Rainey. Sixty four percent of Her Justice clients are mothers and 80% are survivors of domestic violence.

In 2017, their goal could be summed up simply: Expand access to the legal system in family, matrimonial, and immigration matters for more women living in poverty in NYC. Accomplishing this, however, was no simple task. To reach more women in need, Her Justice ) relaunched their live Legal Help Line; 2) increased outreach into communities to provide information on immigrant rights under the Trump administration; 3) celebrated the one-year anniversary of their Urgent Legal Care Project, where women with high-stakes legal needs received immediate representation; and 4) launched an innovative medical-legal partnership with NYU Langone Hospital to help medical professionals identify victims of intimate partner violence.

All in all, nearly 8,000 women and children living in poverty received free legal help thanks to Her Justice. The organization’s Pro Bono First model, where volunteer attorneys are trained and mentored to provide free legal help in family, matrimonial, and immigration matters to clients efficiently “brings the power of the private bar to serve some of the City’s most vulnerable women and children,” said Rainey.

How You Can Help

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

 

Six-Part Blog Series: Rebuilding Homes and Hope

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“In 2018, we plan to complete over 200 Harvey homes, maybe even more, but we’re still going to continue to repair homes that were not impacted by Harvey, because we have people on our waiting list and we’re not going to let them go. We’re here for the long haul and will continue to take care of the populations we always have and serve the neighbors we always have.” —Christine Holland, Rebuilding Together Houston (Houston, TX)

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas’ east coast. In the Houston metropolitan area specifically, widespread flooding damaged property and took lives. Prior to the storm, Rebuilding Together Houston was already providing no-cost home repair to low-income senior citizens, U.S. military veterans, and people with disabilities. They focused predominantly on exteriors of homes to replace siding, ensure doors and windows worked properly, control water leaks, and improve accessibility by adding ramps/railing.

“When Harvey happened, we knew that we needed to widen our lane. Normally, we wouldn’t get involved in repairing a home until it was pretty much put back together and we would work on the outside, but we realized that that just wasn’t going to cut it here,” said Holland.

“It’s been very difficult for anyone impacted by Harvey to begin the process of recovery. For vulnerable populations, even more so. Very quickly, we got together to plan our response. We knew we needed to help our homeowners in a different kind of way, so we started our “Home After Harvey” program. We’re still focusing on the same neighbors that we were before, but now we’re working with contractors and volunteer teams to return the interior of the homes impacted by Harvey to a safe and livable condition.”

The New Orleans affiliate of Rebuilding Together came to Houston following the storm and took several days to teach the Houston staff how to muck and gut and take the house down to the studs. Now though, Rebuilding Together Houston is starting to move into the recovery phase, putting the homes back together. In 2017, the non-profit began recovery work in more than 25 homes, beginning to return them to a safe and livable condition. That number is estimated to be 200 or more in 2018.

When asked what the organization’s biggest “win” in 2017 was, Ms. Holland instantly said, “Neighbors helping neighbors all over this city, and coming from everywhere. There’s been an incredible outpouring of resources, funds, and building materials that gave our organization the confidence to jump in and help right away without worrying how we were going to fund it.”

She added, “There are thousands and thousands of Houstonians who have been impacted by Harvey and it’s going to take us years to get this done. Rebuilding Together Houston expects to be in the thick of this for four or five years. I think what’s going to get harder in the years ahead is the awareness of what’s happening here. Now, people are very engaged. Two years from now, we hope that’s the same story.”

How You Can Help

  • Volunteer. Skilled volunteers are needed for carpentry, drywall, and painting, but Rebuilding Together Houston staff will also teach skills to anyone who is willing.
  • Support rebuilding efforts with a financial donation.

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager

 

Six-Part Blog Series: Breaking Down Barriers

January 5, 2018 in Partners

One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

BOSS believes that people affected by crisis have invaluable knowledge and insight about what works to change lives, so we hire from our target population; at least 40% of BOSS staff have personal experience with homelessness, disabilities, substance abuse or criminal justice systems.” —Sonja Fitz, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (Berkeley, CA)

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS)’s mission is to help those who are mentally ill, struggling with substance abuse, formerly incarcerated, or otherwise homeless achieve health and self-sufficiency, and to fight against the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

“We serve the very poor — people with one or more barriers to self-sufficiency, such as former incarceration, mental illness, substance abuse issues, inter-generational poverty, or lack of job skills and/or literacy. There are more people on the streets, more homeless encampments, and little-to-no housing that is affordable on very low incomes. Also, there are hundreds of formerly incarcerated individuals being released to communities in California due to AB 109 and they need help finding jobs and connecting with positive social supports quickly, before they can recidivate,” said Fitz.

One of the ways BOSS tackled these issues in 2017 was by expanding their workforce development program (the Career Training and Employment Center) and partnering with employers who were willing to take a risk on job seekers who needed a second chance. In October, the organization celebrated 50 graduates, all employed full-time.

How You Can Help

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager