In addition to referring its patients to needed social services through the new NCCARE360 portal, Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center in Ahoskie is holding "virtual visits" in its parking lot so patients can engage in social distancing. Here, staff member Nesita Britt delivers a mobile device so a patient can speak with a provider. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center

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Vidant Health, the Greenville-based nonprofit health care system that serves 1.4 million people across 29 counties in Eastern North Carolina, is now a part of the sprawling NCCARE360 network.

Vidant joins Greensboro-based Cone Health and Raleigh-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals on the statewide web-based platform that is attempting to knock down barriers to the delivery of social services like housing, food and medical care.

At its hospitals and physician practices, Vidant Health is integrating its electronic health records system, Epic, with NCCARE360’s constantly updated database of social service providers so clinicians, case managers and other staff are able to connect patients directly to the community resources they need.

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In addition to Vidant, NCCARE360 has recruited 19 additional counties to its platform, bringing the total number of counties on board to 69 as of Tuesday.

The newest counties are Avery, Burke, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Caswell, Duplin, Greene, Harnett, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, McDowell, Mitchell, Onslow, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, Wayne and Yancey.

Using statewide virtual meetings, rapid-response registration and online software training during the current coronavirus pandemic, NCCARE360 has accelerated the recruitment of counties to its platform so the state’s most vulnerable residents don’t have to engage in a hit-or-miss search for basic services, according to an NCCARE360 press release.

Before implementation, which began last year, people seeking assistance with food insecurity, affordable housing or other needs were largely on their own to figure out who could help them. Now, the new coordinated care network, which is free to the public, directs individuals to providers who are held accountable for reporting each need as having been “resolved” or “unresolved.”

“The problems of poverty are being exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Caroline Doherty, the chief development and programs officer at Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center in Hertford County that provides primary care, behavioral health and pharmacy services.

At the Ahoskie-based center, 80% of patients fall below 200% of the poverty line. Food, child care, behavioral health and transportation needs are “the biggest challenges” facing patients at the center, Doherty said, and they are made more vexing by a “tremendous loss of staff” at food pantries as older volunteers considered at risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, disengage from service.

Doherty told Carolina Public Press that NCCARE360 represents an easier, faster way to refer patients to social services that are currently staffed and open.

Both Vidant and Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center consider their patients “a shared responsibility,” and referrals are made both ways based on specific medical needs, Doherty said.

Each organization uses the Epic health records system and can make social service referrals for their respective patients through the portal. But with the lack of broadband remaining a chronic problem for 45% of the households in her clinic’s service area, Doherty said some patients cannot engage in telemedicine and must get the referral information they need directly from a provider.

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In addition to using NCCARE360, Roanoke Chowan is keeping its own patients plugged in through “virtual visits” being held in the parking lot of the Ahoskie office as well as at three affiliated primary care lots in Colerain, Creswell and Murfreesboro.

“We extended hot spots into all of our parking lots,” Doherty said, with patients being given hand sanitizer and able to borrow a mobile device to converse with their individual providers.

NCCARE360 was created through a partnership between the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation. It continues to be built by Unite Us, a New York-based technology firm.

As of Tuesday, the initiative had already brought on board 1,014 organizations like Vidant Health as well as 3,433 users like social workers and case managers.

People searching for assistance can do so directly through the website NCCARE360.org or by calling the 2-1-1 system run by United Way of North Carolina.

NCCARE360 expects to have all 100 of North Carolina’s counties engaged on its platform by the end of this year.

Neil Cotiaux

Neil Cotiaux is a contributing writer for Carolina Public Press. He is based in Wilmington. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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