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The news last week that health care organizations will invest $21.5 million in specially supported local housing projects could be a harbinger of things to come.


On Thursday, officials for Legacy Health, Oregon Health & Science University, Adventist Health Portland, CareOregon, Kaiser Permanente Northwest and Providence Health & Services Oregon announced the investment in a three-building project called Housing is Health.

The concept is pretty simple, says Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern. When it comes to some of the area’s homeless people suffering chronic illness, “It’s going to be hard to get them well and keep them well if they don’t have housing.”

It wasn’t a focus of Thursday’s press conference, but the local project amounts to a display project for the direction leaders want to take Oregon, by tapping the billions of federal Medicaid dollars the state receives under the low-income Oregon Health Plan to assist with housing.

In August, the state of Oregon asked the federal government to renew its special exemption from standard Medicaid rules, asking for $1.25 billion as well as flexibility to spend money on “targeted” housing projects, including for medically challenged homeless people.

“Limited services exist to address homelessness, and often available care coordination and supportive housing services contain gaps, lack coordination and education to ensure services are available and used,” says the state’s application for federal approval of the idea, which cited the Portland area’s homelessness crisis.

“It’s experimental,” Blackburn says of the statewide effort. “There’s a lot to be worked out, but that is very promising.”

Blackburn puts the effort in more practical terms. He says a big part of the problem is one of logistics: The sick or addicted people who most need the housing help can’t get it.

“The big barrier for a lot of housing providers to housing people with special needs is services aren’t available to help them remain in housing in a stable way,” Blackburn says. “So they can’t afford it out of their cash flow of their affordable housing project.”

The new project consists of three separate complexes. The Eastside Health Center will serve medically fragile people and people in recovery from addictions and mental illness with a first-floor clinic and housing for 176 people. The Stark Street apartments in East Portland will provide 155 units of workforce housing. And the Interstate apartments in North Portland will provide 51 units designed for families.

Blackburn says the new project “is going to pay off big time” in terms of getting homeless people off the street and reducing emergency room visits and other costs. “These are people that are high cost to systems but also highly impactful to neighborhoods, and we will be able to provide a lot of relief there. It’s going to have a big dent on the 2,000 people in the streets who are having the biggest impact.”

The money for the just-announced project won’t come out of Medicaid. Rather, it will be part of their community giving that the organizations need to show in order to maintain their nonprofit status.

That said, as Medicaid providers, they could benefit if the project assists in getting the state’s new federal waiver application approved.

Blackburn said the idea of linking housing to health services has been batted around for years. The fact that it finally came together this way is “a little bit of an out-of-body experience.”

He says in February, CEO George Brown of Legacy Health put out a letter inviting the other groups’ CEOs to meet with Blackburn to discuss the idea.

“Everyone was wanting to do something and do something big,” Blackburn recalls. “They didn’t need any convincing.”

At a follow-up meeting a couple of months later, “We told them our target was $20, $21 million and when we went around the table (asking for commitments) we had about $21.5 million. It was a little bit weird because you think, ‘Is this real?’ ”

He said the CEOs are motivated by civic-mindedness, not just profit.

“The CEOs wanted to do something big here. They wanted to show that they could do something together because they are such fierce compettiors,” he says. “They also are hoping this will inspire other large businesses to work together to do these types of things to help relieve this crisis.”

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