Social workers bridge the gap between clinic and community

This year marks the centennial of social workers as crucial providers at University of Iowa Health Care. Within the Department of Internal Medicine, social workers have been a part of the care offered people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS for more than two decades. Funded through the Ryan White CARE legislation, our department’s eight social workers offer case management to fulfill each patient’s needs.

Clinical social workers connect people to resources such as financial assistance, stable housing, and employment. In any clinical setting, patients are swarmed with a maze of paperwork as well as financial barriers, but social workers are committed to relieving these stressors. Since the beginning of the Ryan White funding in 1998, Internal Medicine social workers have coordinated care and helped patients easily find a wide variety of services from insurance assistance to counseling. Led by Tricia Kroll, LMSW, this aspect of HIV care at Iowa has grown dramatically in the past 6 years due to enhanced Ryan White funding.

Operating under a dual contract between the University of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Public Health, Jennifer Keeler, BSW, explained how she and the other Ryan White Program social workers provide case management to individuals living with HIV and AIDS.

“We can help patients who may have socio-economic struggles with paying a utility bill or having a disconnection notice,” Keeler said. “We can help patients who haven’t been able to access insurance plans previously access a plan through the marketplace, so that they could have insurance coverage. If they’re financially eligible, we can get them assistance through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides wraparound coverage for those medication co-pays.”

Among the resources available to patients is the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) grant, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and subcontracted through the Iowa Finance Authority. Managed by social worker this grant offers people living with HIV/AIDS housing assistance so they can maintain safe, affordable housing. This service is available in 22 counties throughout southeastern Iowa. HOPWA helps many people who are at risk of losing their housing due to difficult circumstances such as health struggles, income loss, or job loss. During COVID-19, many people lost income due to their employers closing and they did not have paid leave benefits. HOPWA allowed them to maintain stable housing while waiting for their employers to reopen or until they could find other employment.

Keeler explains that stable housing is critical for anyone, but especially for people who rely on the HIV/AIDS clinic. “In our program, we really view housing as healthcare,” she said. “Because if you don’t have a place to lay your head at night, you’re not going to be thinking about, ‘where are my meds?’”

Jack Stapleton, MD, professor in Infectious Diseases, director of the Ryan White Program and the HIV/AIDS clinic, finds that many patients struggle less with their medical condition and more with their socioeconomic barriers.

“Having this outstanding group of social workers has been amazingly helpful for our patients,” Stapleton said. “Often, the socioeconomic parts of our patients’ medical care is the hardest job, as the medical care for most of our patients is much simpler now that treatment for HIV has become so effective and safe.”

Stapleton is thankful to the social workers who are trained to answer tough questions and help patients find solutions.

“We often tell people that our patients get the kind of care that everybody deserves,” Stapleton said. “We’re fortunate that we have the funding through the federal government to provide these kinds of services, and we’ve been able to hire such wonderful, caring people to serve our patients.”

After ten years working in the HIV/AIDS Treatment clinic, Keeler has been able to care and create long-term relationships with several patients. “Being allowed to be a part of their lives, being able to celebrate their achievements and helping them through days that were really rough has really been an honor,” Keeler said.

Last week, the Division of Infectious Diseases recognized the contributions of the social workers by delivering fresh mini-Bundt cakes from a local favorite baker. Our thanks to the photographers!

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