The Buzz This Week 

Major health insurers are making substantial investments to tackle social needs that can negatively impact their members’ health outcomes and contribute to health inequities. Commonly referred to as social determinants or social drivers of health (SDOH), these dynamics include nonmedical factors such as economic stability, employment, housing security, access to healthy and affordable food, and crime rates, among others.  

At the end of May, Centene announced a partnership with McCormack Baron Salazar to develop affordable housing in multiple states to address housing insecurity and access issues. Through this collaboration, Centene’s philanthropic arm will provide below-market loans to support the design and planning. The group anticipates around $900 million in construction-related activities. These projects will include commercial spaces for health services within the housing developments, addressing both housing and health needs simultaneously.

Similarly, UnitedHealth Group recently surpassed $1 billion in investments in affordable housing, which it began in 2011. The company has supported the development of more than 25,000 homes across 31 states and the District of Columbia. UnitedHealth’s approach involves integrating health and social services within residential developments, reflecting a commitment to long-term community health.

Beyond housing, the Elevance Health Foundation launched a $10 million initiative to support small businesses that address health equity issues, such as lack of access to healthcare and food insecurity. This investment focuses on businesses owned by women and people of color, providing financial support to empower under-resourced communities and tackle SDOH in innovative ways.  

Additionally, the Cigna Group Foundation has committed more than $27 million in grants over the next 3 years to improve youth mental health. The organization is partnering with community groups to address post-pandemic stress among young people, improve access to mental health care, and empower caregivers and professionals. By focusing on mental health, Cigna is addressing another critical aspect of social drivers that impact overall health.

Together, these initiatives illustrate a comprehensive and proactive approach some payers are taking to address the root causes of poor health outcomes and health inequity.  

Why It Matters

Addressing SDOH has become a strategic priority for health insurers, driven by the need to improve health outcomes and reduce long-term healthcare costs. These investments illustrate a multifaceted approach to improving health and underscore the critical role of community-based interventions.

Housing insecurity is a well-documented contributor to poor health, leading to higher rates of chronic conditions and increased healthcare utilization. As Catherine Anderson, Senior Vice President of Health Equity Strategy at UnitedHealth, aptly stated, “It’s hard to talk to somebody about preventive care if they’re worried about where they’re sleeping, or where their family will be sleeping tonight.”  

Supporting small businesses owned by minority populations such as women and people of color targets critical aspects of SDOH: economic stability and access to resources. By financially supporting these businesses, payers aim to empower communities that often face systemic barriers to economic opportunities. Economic empowerment is essential to all aspects of social wellbeing—especially those that impact health and health outcomes—as well as for direct access to healthcare.

Mental health significantly impacts overall health and wellbeing. Depression, for instance, increases the risk of various physical health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Mental health issues also are a primary cause of disability and negative life outcomes among young people. Since the pandemic's onset, the incidence of psychological distress among youth has surged, particularly affecting those already at risk, including youth who have disabilities, are from racial and ethnic minorities, identify as LGBTQIA+, or are part of other marginalized groups.  

One way payers are ensuring the effectiveness of their initiatives is through prioritizing community engagement. Recent research indicates that payers lead the way among healthcare organizations seeking input from community-based organizations and consumers to develop effective health equity strategies. By aligning their investments with the needs of the communities they serve, payers are not only enhancing their social responsibility profiles but also creating sustainable, long-term benefits for their members and the broader healthcare system.  


Cleveland Clinic: 
Social Determinants of Health (SDOH): Definition & Examples

Fierce Healthcare:
Centene taps McCormack Baron Salazar for investments in affordable housing

Fierce Healthcare:
Cigna Group Foundation unveils grant program targeting youth mental health

Editorial advisor: Roger Ray, MD, Chief Physician Executive.


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