Guest Commentary: Inspiring health through a different lens

Dr. Cara Christ is chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. She previously served as Arizona Department of Health services director, leading the state’s COVID-19 response during the largest public health initiative in the nation’s history.

In public health, we work to make the healthy choice an easy choice and help people embrace a healthy lifestyle.

Yet, oftentimes, the cost of health care is a determining factor in choices people make about their health. It can prevent someone from seeking medical care or even force a choice between purchasing food or filling important prescriptions.

Basic needs must be addressed first for someone to reach their healthiest state. For example, someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or who is struggling to feed their family is less likely to prioritize controlling their blood sugar or taking time off to get an eye or foot exam.

I learned early on in my career that health insurance can significantly change lives, especially if someone has the wherewithal to leverage the different choices available to them to obtain more affordable, accessible and higher-quality care.

As the former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, I saw how health insurance providers helped public health bridge the gap between the immediate healthcare needs of the community to directly help people thrive.

I worked with healthcare insurance providers on a variety of programs, from Arizona Department of Health Services’ Opioid Emergency Response and Arizona Health Improvement Plan to the colossal task of coordinating a mass vaccination site at State Farm Stadium. With each opportunity, I saw an incredible willingness to step up and make a difference in the lives of Arizonans.

Collaborating with members of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona team on these projects gave me insight into their deep commitment to the community. I could also directly see that the health issues I am especially passionate about are the same issues that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona is laser-focused on solving, whether it be substance use disorder, mental health, chronic health conditions or health equity.

It also reinforced to me that nurturing the wellness of our community is more than just a task for public health agencies. It made me realize joining the health insurance industry to work on population health from a different perspective would be the opportunity of a lifetime.

As a chief medical officer for the largest health insurer in the state, I find there are so many opportunities to inspire health. Whether it is updating or negotiating contracts to ensure affordability or implementing programs to improve health outcomes, a key component of the role is to find even more ways to make health better. This includes everything from tackling current public health priorities to implementing life-changing programs that ensure health equity and invest in Arizona’s wellness.

In this new role, I’ve prioritized addressing “whole-person health.” During the last five years, while Arizonans have reported feeling physically healthier, mental distress has increased. To help address this, we are actively working to implement an integrated medical management strategy that blends physical health, behavioral health and the vital social determinants of health. The goal is to create a best-in-class model that continues improving health across Arizona. At a grassroots level, that means improving the status quo so no Arizonan is forced to decide between accessing healthcare or putting food on the table.

One of the first key health conditions we are addressing is diabetes. According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 1 in 10 of Arizona’s adults have diabetes. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona is teaming up with the Arizona Department of Health Services and other partners in the community to spearhead our Diabetes Action Plan that will work to lower HgbA1c (a test to measure blood sugar levels), increase engagement of members living with diabetes, increase provider coordination and accessibility, reduce the disparity of outcomes among members, and perform routine surveillance to monitor diabetes. By 2025, our goal is to reduce the progression of diabetes by 25%. Not only will we be helping our members living with diabetes and prediabetes, but we will also aim to improve public health in our communities statewide.

Having led the state’s public health system allows me to bring a different perspective to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona’s clinical team, as well as to peers in the industry. My goal is to introduce and implement creative, collaborative solutions that positively impact the health of Arizonans. At the end of the day, it is important to look at health insurance through a public health lens, identifying ways to not only encourage wellness but also ensure access to affordable, convenient, and personalized healthcare.