February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: Oakland shows right way to weave safety net

An Oakland County initiative to provide health care for homeless offers model of government action

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)

L. Brooks Patterson leads one of the nation’s most affluent communities, but that doesn’t mean Oakland County is immune to homelessness. So the Oakland County executive is making indigent health care a priority — without expanding the bureaucracy.

Instead, the county is working to organize existing programs in a targeted approach.

“Bring resources together,” Patterson said of the initiative.

In his State of the County speech last week, Patterson introduced the Oakland County Homeless Healthcare Collaboration, an initiative that began in 2012. The county’s Department of Health and Human Services coordinated more than 40 health care and service agencies, and they’re working to close gaps that exist when it comes to caring for the homeless.

Patterson describes the program as both humane and fiscally responsible. Its primary goal is twofold: Reducing health care costs by diminishing the number of hospital admissions and repeat emergency rooms visits, while at the same time making sure the homeless have access to reliable medical attention.

Health officials decided to act after a county “nurse on call” hotline reported an increase of individuals in financial distress who needed care. Also, Oakland Schools had noticed a rise in homeless students. Officials realized there was ineffective communication among county service providers.

The group Michigan’s Campaign to End Homelessness reports that, in 2011, Oakland County had more than 3,000 homeless individuals. In Metro Detroit, that number jumps to around 27,000.

The Oakland County collaboration pulls together hospitals, shelters, clinics and food providers. It offers one place that health care agencies can go to discuss both homelessness and the health care needs of these individuals. And it has created a portal where these partners can share useful information. “There are many different and varied partners,” says Kathy Forzley, Oakland County’s Health Division manager.

Forzley and her team are working on raising funds for places where the homeless can go to fully recover after being released from the hospital. Too often, the homeless end up back in the ER because they don’t get the follow-up care they need.

Patterson upheld the Hope Hospitality and Warming Center in Pontiac for the way it provides this type of assistance, known as “step-down care” in the medical community.

This model of care has the potential of saving hospitals a significant sum in uncompensated care. And Forzley notes homeless individuals at the center are also connected to other community services. So it benefits them, too.

“It offers a more stable place while they are getting back on their feet,” Forzley says.

This approach is government at its best. Through coordinating existing services, many of them delivered by non-governmental agencies, the county is improving the quality of life for some of its most vulnerable citizens.