Creating Inclusive Healthcare and Wellness – Ep.89

Practicing Conscious Leadership – Ep.88
May 10, 2023
Championing Our Service Members – Ep.90
May 24, 2023

Director of Community, Marketplace, and Member Engagement at Health Plan of San Joaquin, Vena Ford discusses improving support services, accessing services, and creating community channels for patients navigating their health care. 

Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to The Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share, or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.

Vena Ford has served as director, community marketplace and member engagement since February 2021. She’s responsible for the marketing and creative strategy, Medi-Cal membership and onboarding changes in Medi-Cal benefits for Health Plan of San Joaquin. She’s also charged with the development and implementation of a community engagement strategy that is aligned with the upcoming California advancing and innovating Medi-Cal or CalAIM initiative. It’s an ongoing priority for Governor Gavin Newsom and currently in development by California’s Health and Human Services Agency.

She’s an experienced healthcare leader. She was at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest in Portland, Oregon, where she was the Medicaid and charitable healthcare operations manager overseeing daily operations for Medicaid contracts in Oregon, as well as Washington State. She also managed the child health program plus, a charitable program focused on children not eligible for subsidized health insurance. And in addition to building strong internal partnerships at Kaiser, she collaborated with external partners throughout the region to promote health education and community health among Oregon’s most vulnerable populations.

She was instrumental in fact as a member of the team that implemented Oregon’s Cover All Kids program in extending healthcare benefits to all children ages zero to 19. Previously, she was a professional in community health and a nonprofit manager, including serving for several years as Director of Health Equity in African-American Disparities Elimination Project for Solano County in California. The initial project implementation she led continues to address the poor health outcome of Solano County’s African American community. She holds a master’s degree in nonprofit administration from the University of San Francisco, and an undergraduate degree in health education with an emphasis in health policy and chemistry from San Francisco State University.

She’s been honored as a 2019 alumni of Leadership Portland and a new generation leader of Color Fellow, a collaboration of the California Endowment and Compass Point. At Health Plan of San Joaquin she’s been instrumental in the creation of the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, which is charged with developing strategies and plans to promote equity and inclusion that involves their health plan members, providers, community partners and staff.

I am so excited again this week. I say this every week, I’m excited, because I get to meet and talk to such wonderful people, and this week is no exception. We have Vena Ford and I am so, so glad that you have joined me on The Jali Podcast. I just want to start out, because I know I’m just going to dive in, and with all that you do with the connection to the community, the marketplace, member engagement, I am just trying to figure out, how did you even get in this space to do what you do?

Vena Ford: Oh, interesting. Initially, I think I was about maybe 12 or 13, and remember the Essence Magazine before this new renewal?

Melyssa Barrett: Oh, yeah.

Vena Ford: And so read the Essence and the Ebony Magazine, it would come in our mail every month. And I think it was in eighth grade, so I had to be about 12, 13, and I was reading the magazine. It was the magazine in which they highlight all the historically black colleges and university. And as I was reading it, I was just like … So initially from eighth grade I was going to go to school to be a cardiologist. I had knew my path. I was going to be a world-renowned cardiologist. And then I went to college and I did some work in the cardiology ward and then was really sad. It’s a lot of bad work. Not bad in that they don’t save lives, but it’s just the truth, the truth hurts sometimes.

And so I was like, “Well wait, how can I figure out a way to get upstream and to educate people on how to be healthy so they don’t have to get to at four years old having those bad outcomes? I moved back to California. I was in New Orleans at school and moved back to California and had a conversation with a outside school advisor. And the school advisor said to me, “Hey, what about health education, health policy and all of that?” I was like, “But I’m halfway through my chemistry, oh girl.” And he said, I think you have a passion for more upstream work, more administrative and more of this than just sitting in a lab working with people who are sad.

I enrolled myself into the Health Education Department at San Francisco State and graduated, did some various projects all over the time, and I was working for the airline and I worked for, I went to AmeriCorps and I spent two years in AmeriCorps in central Indianapolis in the Mary side of Indianapolis and Indiana.

I’m working on basically just community development working, supporting people to earn assets through the National Individual Development Account program. And from then there I took a job at United Way of the Bay Area. And because I have such a great health background, I was lucky to be named the program officer for the health issue, which really supported granting and providing grants from the dollars raised to the community. But at the same time, we were on the cutting edge of policy of what is now our Modern Manage Health program here in California, and then just Medicaid across the country, which is really exciting. I took that job and then took another job working on health disparities in the African American community where it was a combination of working with hospitals and clinics and boards and counties and public health departments and all these amazing people to improve the lives of African Americans in the community through health.

But it always got back down to people’s access. And so in 2010 when Obama passed the Affordable Care Act or also now popularize, that’s Obama Care. I was super excited. That was my favorite day. It was one of my favorite days in my life. And then a couple of days later I lost my job and I was like, “Well, what do I want to do?” I didn’t lose my job because a bad thing, but I lost my job. So I was like, “Where do I want to go?” And at that point I realized that I wanted to go on healthcare and particularly to support folks where they’re needed, not necessarily at the bedside, but outside of the bedside. Long story short, from there I ended up working in Portland, Portland, Oregon on Medicaid program in Oregon called Oregon Health Plan.

As a member of one of the organizations that provided care, I loved everything about it. I was lucky to have an infrastructure that gave me access from everything from eligibility and learning how people got into the Medicaid program, managing that with our own organization, all the way in the financial reporting or reporting to the states and all the regulatory requirements and people and systems and all of that in between them. In that time I spent a lot of time being curious. Curious, curious, curious. But also at the same time I was running and supporting a community program that provided a 100% health insurance for undocumented children in the Metro Portland area, which was really great. Because now I not only have all this administrative background, but I also had a huge community responsibility, which was a lot of fun for me and did a lot of things in the community up there.

Got to know some of the most amazing people who I ever worked with. And everywhere I’ve worked in the country, I will have to say, “Shout-out to my folks in Portland. You got, you’re doing some things. I know it seems hard sometimes, but you’re doing some great stuff.” And they got recruited here after a short time in Texas, which was an interesting, but was recruited here. And my job here was to be a consultant on what we now call CalAIM, California Advancing and Innovation in Medicaid, which is the big initiative that our governor has put out there. And then another role came up and I was asked to do a role as the director of Community Marketplace and member of engagement. I’ll kind of have all the roles and then now I get the fun world of being currently marketing, which it’s very different to me. But I have the education background and a chemistry background to work in marketing. And so I was lucky.

Melyssa Barrett: But that’s exciting because-

Vena Ford: That’s exciting.

Melyssa Barrett: Now I get to see it all.

Vena Ford: It is exciting, but it also helps to put perspective on what we’re saying. Understanding everything that goes on behind the scenes, or most of, I’ll never say I understand. But understanding most of what goes on behind the scenes gets you to deliver the right message and make people excited about what we’re doing and how we’re working in the community and wanting to bring us to the table of partners. The health plan has been here for over 27 years and has done some amazing work in this community. And as the community grows, the health plan grows. It’s transformed. It’s in constant transformation as Medicaid, national and Medi-Cal in our state is also transforming.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. Well, and it’s so funny you said, I can’t remember the exact term, but you said something about innovation in Medicare.

Vena Ford: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: And I was like, those are two words you don’t normally hear together. But it’s wonderful when you actually have innovation and can see it. Because you guys are really, I mean, when DEI, when we talk about DEI and you know me, everything to me has a DEI component to it. And I love the fact that you guys actually walk the talk at Health Plan of San Joaquin by actually connecting with the community in ways that most companies don’t really get. They don’t really get it. And so I love the fact that, and I mean, clearly to me because you have such a broad experience, you guys, you what you’re doing. Before I get to Health Plan of San Joaquin, because I do want you to talk about what you guys are doing and all of those things, but I know you also said you had background in some things like accessing healthcare for the African American community. And some of those challenges and issues that become more emphasized when we’re talking about what zip code you live in and all of those things.

Maybe you can just shed a little bit of light on some of the social determinants of health and some of the challenges that we have? And then we can shift into what Health Plan is doing, because I know you guys are addressing a lot of it.

Vena Ford: So, I’m of the belief that good health provides a great life, right?

Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely.

Vena Ford: And so when we have good health, whatever that good health feels and looks like for you, we’re able to do things that we never thought we could do. But when you don’t have good health, you’re always distracted by that pain, or that ache, or that uncomfortable place. And so, in the African American community, before the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid was typically for the poorest of the poorest, women and children. And also, it excluded folks like single men. Some working families, people with assets like a home and other assets. And the Affordable Care Act really lifted some of that. One of the biggest things that happened as a result of the Affordable Care Act, not only just the African American community, but in the African American community, is that men got access, low income men were able to access healthcare.

For example, here’s an example. When I was in Oregon, so I started in Oregon when everything was wiped up and everything was moving towards that 2015, I remember calling, which is our president over dental, and I just sent him a message. He was like, “Hey, you know, do you think dental would the African American,” both the day that was hosted by their huge African-American health initiative in Oregon. And he was like, “Yeah, we’ll do it. We’ll do it. That’s fine, we’ll do it. And we’re organized and whatnot.” And I remember a man coming in a lot of pain. He had never been to the dentist and he was in a lot of pain. He came in, got an appointment, he walked over across the street to the dental office and walked in and they got our carrier.

And he were like, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to have all this work done.” I’m not going into the extent of the work. And he’s like, “I can’t pay for it. I just can’t pay for it.” And at that moment we were able to connect him with folks locally to get him enrolled. He actually qualified for a Medicaid program, which empowered all of his service that he needed to get him back in place. Now, who knows, we know that our mouths are the health.

Melyssa Barrett: Oh yeah.

Vena Ford: So, you’re teeth are bad, your heart might be bad, diabetes. There’s a lot of things that come if we don’t take care of our teeth. But I think in my mind, after him coming over and thanking us for just helping him, I hope, and I still hope to this day, because I didn’t follow, he’s a patient, I can’t follow him, but I hope in my mind it changed his life. The fact that he had all this stuff going on and he really needed support. And then to find out that it’s covered, and then to find out that you can qualify for health insurance is amazing. And a lot of us as African Americans don’t know that you may qualify, you may have a family of say six, and you and your husband or you and your partner, that’s to work health insurance and to cover the rest of your family, your children, your surrogate children, your child, what have you, may qualify for Medi-Cal.

Because for kids, they actually expand the FPL, the federal poverty level, the money that you’ve made in order to give people access. For adults, it’s 138% of the federal level. That’s nothing. That’s like, I think it’s about 14 or $15,000 a year for an individual. But for a family, for a kid, it goes up to like in California. And other states it goes as high as 250%. And so a family who might be making a somewhat livable wage, because of the number of families, the number of people in the family, might qualify for healthcare, might qualify for Medi-Cal. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, because we pay into it all the time.

Melyssa Barrett: Right, right.

Vena Ford: That’s one of the pieces of education we have to give people all the time is that even though you’re both working, you may still qualify and your children may be on Medi-Cal and you may be under work insurance. Or you may be on Medi-Cal and your husband or your wife or your partner has their health insurance, but the rest of the family may qualify. We have lots of mixed families. And what I mean by the mixed families is mixed covered family [inaudible 00:18:16] community.

Melyssa Barrett: Yes.

Vena Ford: It feels that people don’t understand to ask the question. And especially in our community. And I think some of, and when I say our community, I mean black community, I think sometimes the information just never gets there. And we got to really work hard at getting the information. But I also believe, I had a great teacher when I was at San Francisco State that I believe in grassroots organizing. It takes us to tell us the right thing to do. We who have access to that information have to make ourselves available. And that’s why oftentimes do you see me in the community, I’m working on weekends or showing up in events or my phone’s ringing, both my personal phone and work. Because I consider myself as having access and trying to be, as one of my previous friends called me, an oracle to connect people.

And so once we do that, we need to get this information in our churches. We need to get the them in our childcare places, places where we live. On the baseball field, the basketball court, wherever the kids are. In the schools. We need to share this information, and we need to also understand that we need to share the information in a way that people can absorb it and it doesn’t go over their head and they know they have access to it. I think in my perspective, now, other people may not feel this way, but the Affordable Care Act really got us closer to Universal Healthcare where everyone has access.

And it also got us closer, or is getting us closer, I want to say it’s totally got us there, but giving people opportunities to level up, to give themselves the opportunity to grow. I know in California they’re trying to connect all the systems. If you qualify for this, you may qualify for food subsidies, you may qualify for housing subsidies. And while we see those as bad in some instances, I think sometimes our media distorts that for us with people. A lot of folks have used these programs, have used the programs to step themselves up and to provide support for the load that they’re carrying in order to get to the next place where the low might be a little bit high.

Melyssa Barrett: Wow.

Vena Ford: That answer your question?

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s awesome. I mean, you’re dropping all sorts of little nuggets as you go. I’m still, I’m curious, curious, curious. And I’m like, “Ooh, she’s got mentorship and curiosity.” And so let me flip to Health Plan of San Joaquin, because I think you mentioned Medi-Cal, for folks that may not be in the United States or California, that is what the state provides. And then we have the national program, Medicaid, but Health Plan of San Joaquin is really focused on the county. And so maybe you can talk about what they do and why they exist and are doing the wonderful things that they are. Because I think when we have companies really focusing on delivering products and services to communities that need it, and I mean, everyone in the community inclusive, then you really see the impact of that work in a different way.

Vena Ford: Health Plan of San Joaquin is a pretty amazing organization, and I’m not just saying, but it is an amazing organization. It started back in 1996, so we’re close to 27, 28 years old. We’re not a baby  anymore organization. But what it does, it’s a managed care organization, also known as MCO. You’ll also hear in the Medicaid space other things like NCOs, Accountable Care Worker, CC, Coordinating Care. Well, you’ll hear all these things. Always ask questions of people.

That’s the MCO, the managed care organization is a locally owned and locally bond health plan, particularly right now and specifically for Medi-Cal amendments. What we do is similar to what a commercial plan would do, but the difference is, you’re not paying us to manage your care. We contract with the state who also has a contract with defense. They match money and then they pool the money in order to pay for health insurance for the most vulnerable. But we work in tandem with Department Health Services, DHCS, Department of Healthcare Services, excuse me, and get me if if didn’t say the “c”. Oh, they’re really working with them to provide to our most vulnerable folks who are at those federal poverty levels that I talked about, access to quality and affordable health insurance. Typically, in the past we’ve had program MC California, like Health and Families, which have a sliding scale for children who didn’t meet Medi-Cal, that’s why they expanded the qualifications for children as those two programs combined.

But really what Health Plan does is make sure that we partner with the county, with all of our county agencies. We partner with CBOs, community based organizations. We partner with clinics, both family qualified and other clinics, as well as hospitals that are in our community, and individual providers who want to work with us, provide health insurance for them to go see all these folks to receive care. We are basically that middle person between the state providing a program, and our providers or organization providing the care to manage and make sure it gets paid for, make sure it meets the regulatory requirements or the state requirements.

And then also, to support and to help with any challenges that may come up in access or connection, whatever that looks like. And not from a simple place. Now, the contract like, oh, 200 pages and all these other things that we have to do. But from a simple perspective, we really are the middle person that works with our providers, our communities, our child beings, our dental partners, our mental health partners, to make sure people have access to what they need, when they need it, and good quality and on time.

Melyssa Barrett: Well, and since you mentioned mental health-

Vena Ford: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: … and it’s Mental Health Awareness Month.

Vena Ford: It is, 

Melyssa Barrett: Because I think a lot of people maybe don’t know that Health Plan of San Joaquin even provides for mental health. I mean, you think medical, “Okay, I go to the hospital or I need to go to the doctor, maybe the dentist.” But now you’re talking about mental health. Is that new?

Vena Ford: Nope. It has never not been new. And what’s happening with CalAIM, we talk about the innovation project that the state is embarking on, is that it’s starting to bring all this together to address, I think we talked about, we didn’t talk about, but social determinants of health, right? So, what are the social determinants that make you healthy? And then where we lack them, how do we find the supports to get you the … Mental health has always been there. Mental health, I think sometimes we disconnect our mental health from our physical health and we disconnect our oral health from our physical and our mental health. I know when my teeth hurt, I can’t think, yes. We always disconnect our body parts or we disconnect things, but when we walk around, we’re a whole person. Mental health being offered, so the plan has a partnership with the mental health provider to do basic mental health.

And then anything specialty or high grade would go to Cali mental health. They have a contract to do that work for our members. But really, if someone needs support, whether it’s counseling or others need assessments done, all those things around mental health or the health of their mental state, you have that plan offers it. I mean, most health insurance do offer some sort of mental health program. They’re a little hard to navigate sometimes. But luckily with the plan you can just pick up the phone and we will connect you with our provider and they will definitely move people forward. And the other thing about that, and it does go under utilized, because there’s still a lot of, how do we say, misbelief, shame, misunderstanding-

Melyssa Barrett: Stigma.

Vena Ford: … to accessing mental health or a provider or counseling, group counseling, whatever it may be. But we, especially as brown people, especially as black people we always say, “Oh, I’m going to give it to God.” I always believe there’s a place in the Bible. It said, I know it’s highlighted for me and got a bookmark and everything. God said, “Faith without work is dead.” Sometimes we got to do the work on ourself to help faith. And that goes for our mental health too. It’s not enough-

Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely.

Vena Ford: … to just give it to God and expecting to change everything. We’ve got to do some things for ourself, whether it’s changing our diet, changing our environment, changing the way we think. But how can you do that if you don’t have the tools? That’s why you seek providers, counseling or support to give you those tools and to help you find ways to figure it out at the same time with your prayer and your meditation and all of those things that you belief.

Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome. Bringing it back, just because I know we didn’t talk really about the social determinants of health. What is that first? Maybe you can just tell us?

Vena Ford: I’m almost there in the simple form. I know if the folks I work with, they’ll be like, “What?”

Melyssa Barrett: Just give it to us in real talk-

Vena Ford: It’s so complicated.

Melyssa Barrett: Real talk.

Vena Ford: Yeah, it’s real talk. It’s so hard, it’s very complicated. Social determinants of health are, what are those things that are around you that determine your health? Your housing, your education, your access to jobs, how you grow up. If you grow up in an abusive situation, if you grow up in a loving situation. A lot of things, those things that we don’t think about when we talk about health, who thinks about the route from school to home as determining if you’re healthy or not, right? Not a lot of people, they just walk home from school. I remember I was a kid, I just walked home from school. It wasn’t until I was a adult I had to think back and think about that. I was like-

Melyssa Barrett: What did you get through?

Vena Ford: The things you have to go through, the people you encountered. The folks, the things that were sent to you. The stuff that you see, those, they really affect those social determinants. And I mean, they’re very prescriptive. They’re very, there’s 13 or 12 of them. And I usually say the one that’s missing is racism. Because oftentimes, well, we might want to add bullying too. And those things have a huge impact on who we are. Can you eat three square meals a day? That’s part of it. And if hunger as a determinate affects your health, there you go. Education, hunger, access, housing, food, racism. It’s all there. In its simplest form, it’s all the things that you do outside of the clinic. That’s how I put it, right? It’s everything else in mind. Do you have a car? How do you access where you need to go? Why are you late to work every day? If I have to walk. Some days I’m tired.

Melyssa Barrett: Through the snow. Remember, your dad used to tell you that.

Vena Ford: Reality is that what is around us, what impacts us is literally around us. And if you can change those environments over time, those environments over time start to hopefully improve the health of the people that are whithin.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And that’s why I love Health Plan of San Joaquin. And I’m not just saying it either, but truly, y’all are walking the talk, because I mean, we see you, not only you, but the team really out in the community, touching people, making a difference, showing up. I mean, because I think a lot of times people don’t even know who to call, where to call. The fact that you guys sit in the middle, I think is really helpful, because I think there’s a lot of people, even in my own household that are trying to figure out healthcare. You know what I mean? And it’s like, it’s a challenge. I mean, literally, I think when people think about whether they’re retiring or whatever they’re doing in life, healthcare is like one of those things that can make or break you, because it’s expensive.

Vena Ford: But healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. And that’s really, I’ve forgotten to say that I don’t know, I know the Martin Luther King, the highest form of injustices, injustice in healthcare. But I don’t know who said healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. And oftentimes when we’re thinking of our budgets, we’re thinking of what we got to do, health insurance is the last thing. It’s the last thing we think about, because it’s so expensive. And in the moment you might be healthy. But tomorrow something may come. And it’s the last thing we think about, especially when we’re young, right? We’re invincible, you can still get sick, right. And there having have been times where I see tragedies happen and had to step in because folks needed health insurance, because of a tragedy, because the person wasn’t prepared. And it’s really about preparing. It’s about preparing ourselves for what may come or what may stay.

But we oftentimes treat healthcare as a privilege, when really it should be our right to be healthy, our right to have a safe environment, our right to have housing, our right to have healthy foods. And there are policies and things in place. And I’m not going to get biblical because that’s how all the podcast we be getting into. But there are things in place that oftentimes we talk about, well, why can’t we change this? Because we have policies in place that are preventing us from changing. We’ve got to change that first in order to get to what we need. And many of these policies have been generations and they’re don’t written thinking about us today with all of the technology, the asset, the fact that you can pick up the phone and have a whole conversation and appointment with your doctor now from the comfort of your couch, did it right?

If I tell you how many times I did not go to the clinic because I could just handle it at all. Those aren’t the things that we have to teach people. And especially getting back to health plan and Medi-Cal and Medi-Cal members, they have access to this stuff. They have access to telehealth, they have access to mental health, they have access to dental and eyeglasses in certain instances. And early pregnancy coverage, thinking about not only is May mental health fund, but we just left maternal child month, and we have a lot of babes and families that are low wave are coming out in issues because Mamas and Papas didn’t know that they could access care in this way. And once they get the access, it might be too late or it might be down the road. And so what we’ve got to do is just keep the messaging. That’s why my staff is everywhere, and that’s why Health Plan of San Joaquin is trying to be everywhere.

We don’t care who you decide to go with, but for us it’s more about the message. You have a right. Healthcare is a right, and here’s your opportunity to get that with whomever. Whether it’s a commercial plan, whether you pay for it yourself or you go through Medi-Cal, you deserve to be healthy. We all deserve to be healthy.

Melyssa Barrett: Well, I love that. Yes, indeed. Well, and so some of the stuff you hit on, we were talking a little bit about health, healthcare, and financial wellness even. And sometimes when we’re stressed out, when we don’t have money, and then we go to the doctor and then we’re stressed out because it costs so much and we still don’t have money. And so it’s like this vicious circle of stress and health. And so maybe you can talk a little bit about, because I know you’ve even given tips and tricks for folks that, I won’t call them tricks, but tips for how if people can’t even pay, what do they do? And there’s so many things that I think people may not know when it comes to healthcare and trying just to get it.

Vena Ford: Oh-

Melyssa Barrett: Or maybe you could talk about the financial components of health and wealth together.

Vena Ford: Oh, health and wealth. The two of them are my favorite subjects, health and wealth. Because your health determines your wealth. And sometimes your wealth determines your health, right?

Melyssa Barrett: Yes.

Vena Ford: And you got to have them both apply in order to get where you go. I’m going to step back to what I said that having good health should be, it’s a requirement. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right. And so yes, if people are sick, they should go to the doctor. There are ways to get into the doctor and should not have to pay. There are ways to get into the doctor and have to pay a discount. Always ask for help. That’s what I have to say. Medi-Cal members don’t really pay for anything, really nothing. Unless they want something elective, which is not covered, which is rare. And those elective things, most of the time Medi-cal is out.

If you know you qualify and you can access it, go access it and keep yourself healthy. The one thing I can say is that one way to lose your wealth is to not have yourself cover and not taking care of yourself. And so people who choose not to, for whatever reason, I’m not putting anybody down, to take health insurance or to find ways out of it that I was always at risk. It’s like driving to California without car insurance, right?

Melyssa Barrett: Right, exactly.

Vena Ford: And you get pulled over and he asked for license and registration and insurance. Let them give up insurance, right?

Melyssa Barrett: Yes.

Vena Ford: God forbid you get it to a car accident. Well, it’s the same thing with your health. God forbid you get into an accident or something goes wrong or something happens. It’s the insurance on who you are as a healthy person. And one way to sustain our community is through programs like Medi-Cal, coupled with programs like, I think it’s still called TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or whatever the new program means, and EITC, Earned Income Tax Credit. All of these put resources back in the hands of those who are vulnerable of not having what they need when they need it. And then at that point, they can use those as stepping stones, or not, whatever they decide. But there are opportunities to keep our community healthy and keep it moving forward, keep it economically sound.

So for example, you don’t have health insurance. We use teeth because teeth is just so easy, right? I have a tooth thing and now I’ve got a headache and now I can’t see you, right? And then I have to go to work and I go to work and I’m irritated and I’m upset, and then I get a bad rap at work, or I get written up for something because I’m all in this pain. And then I don’t have a job, all because I didn’t go and handle the tooth.

Imagine our babies. I was one of those children who didn’t know they needed glasses. But like I said, and the reason why is I got chickenpox so old, and I remember I was a taller student. I’m not tall now, I’m just, at that time I’m tall. And so if I sat in the back and I couldn’t read the board, I could not see the board in Spanish class to save my life. And everything was written on the board. And I was disruptive because I was trying to figure out what things said. I’m asking people walking to the board, and as soon as my teacher talked to my parents about getting a pair of glasses. Yeah, I’d be wearing glasses in eighth grade, I was able to see again.

And that made a huge difference in how I performed and how I was present in the room. And even though after eighth grade, I became the shortest person in the school, I still had access. We don’t think of things like eyeglasses as access. We think of them as accessories. But no, it’s access to the world that I can’t see otherwise. Dentist, it’s access to the world that I can’t chew or taste or even prevent a headache otherwise. Going in for your wheelchair, that’s access to the world to be able to perform otherwise. I really also think that health is wealth.

Melyssa Barrett: Right.

Vena Ford: If you are healthy, you are wealthy because now you can do anything. You don’t have this distraction of your temple being all over the place. Instead, you’re invincible. You can do whatever. If you want to go start a million-dollar company, you can do it. Or if you want to just ride a bike around Lake Tahoe, you can do it. But your health is definitely your wealth. And from that, the world is your oyster. Health Plan really is focused on getting people to go in for their well person checks. Well child, well women, well man, whatever that looks like for you, it’s important to go in. It sounds like an inconvenience. Ooh, the lights go into the doctor, they poke and pry it. However, when you tell them out, they’re like, you look amazing. You’re healthy. You don’t have high blood pressure. Your numbers are good. You can see, you can taste, you can eat. Then you can go and do what she need to do.

Melyssa Barrett: And I should mention that in some of these federally qualified healthcare centers, they have some better innovation in some of these than some of the other hospitals and doctor’s offices sometimes. I mean, it’s amazing. Because I think our mind is thinking that, “Oh, well, maybe they’re not the same or they’re less than.” But the investment the federal government has made in federally qualified healthcare centers is huge. It’s amazing to see how much service you can actually receive, and in some cases, better service, depending on where you are. We have to change our thinking.

Vena Ford: Yeah, these aren’t your FQHCs of the ’60s we’re like when FQ started in Mississippi, and it was, well, I’m not going to go there, but academic trying to provide help in rural Mississippi. And they sought funding and got it to actually create these small communities to support people who are now no longer sharecroppers, no longer this, no longer that. And now FQs are amazing institutions of care in the community. I’m not saying that our larger plans don’t have access, but they’re rooted in the community, like the health plan. They’re in the community, they’re rooted in the community. They’re for the community, by the community. They can react and move with the ebbs and flows of what happens in the community. And so, you’re right, FQs are not the same as they have in the past. I remember moving here and I got assigned to a FQ. I was like, wait, what? And I went, I was like, oh, well, this is nice.

Melyssa Barrett: This is different.

Vena Ford: But if I have a commercial plan, and it started to get assigned to a FQ, seemed very different for me. But it took away that misnomer where to get care. And then also, they have other allowances for people who may not be employed or don’t have insurance. We should be very rare now because we are at 95% insured in the state, not more.

Melyssa Barrett: Nice.

Vena Ford: But they offer so much and there’s so connected to what the community needs are. This is not to down anybody else, but it’s also to uplift-

Melyssa Barrett: Right.

Vena Ford: … the innovation, the care, the advancements that from the ’50s and ’60s when FQ starting enroll in the cotton fields out there to today. I mean technology, it has taken us so far.

Melyssa Barrett: Yes, shout-out. We got to give a shout-out-

Vena Ford: Shout-out to all of our plans.

Melyssa Barrett: … when we need to we give a shout.

Vena Ford: Shout-out to all of our plants.

Melyssa Barrett: Yes. Yes. We were going to also talk about renewals and what that even is.

Vena Ford: Yes. Renewals. Oh my goodness, so cool COVID. That’s all I have to say, I’m done with it. I don’t know if y’all are good as I am with COVID I want to be outside.

Melyssa Barrett: Right, exactly.

Vena Ford: But COVID, there were a lot of great things as a result of COVID that we learned about ourselves as a country. And I think as a world. And there are some things now we got to course correct. One of the great things that happened during COVID is that anyone who was on a Medicaid product across the country did not have to renew starting in, I think it was February or March of 2020 when we all went home, we had to stay at home.

Melyssa Barrett: Right.

Vena Ford: Folks have been on, we’ll use Medi-Cal, for example, and they’ve never had to renew during this time. Yeah, they’ve got letters of renewal. But unless there’s some extenuating circumstance, the state wasn’t going to term anyone. However, the time has come where renewals are going to relaunch. On April 1st, 2023, the first letters started to go out. They started in April, and then letters went out early in May and will continue through next June.

Letters are going out to members, to Medi-Cal members who have not renewed that must renew. So not everybody has to renew, about 25% of the folks on Medi-Cal don’t have to worry about renewal ever. But the rest of them may have to renew in some sort of way. And so in the mail they’ll be receiving an envelope. It might be yellow, it might be Manila today. I heard that might be white, I don’t know. But you’re going to get a big envelope if you’re a Medi-Cal member. And in that envelope are those renewal papers. Folks will have 60 days to turn those around. Fill them out, get all the documents together that you’re being asked for, and then send them back to the address on your most likely of counties.

But another great thing, technology innovation is people can actually do renewals online too. I’ll have to look at the website, but they can go on online and pull up their information, it’s in the packet, and pull up their numbers and get the whole application online and submit online. But not every family has access to the renewal process online. That’s why everyone’s receiving a paper package. And what I would say is seed bank coverage is important. If you don’t have alternative coverage, if you have not applied for alternative coverage and you don’t think you qualify for Medi-Cal or you know you qualify for Medi-Cal, and you’re just looking at the package when it comes in the mail, what is the fabulous stuff? Because we know? We know folks don’t open their mail. Open it, fill it out.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Vena Ford: Go online, fill it out. If you need help, call someone. Let them help you fill it out and get it back. No one in our communities, no one in the United States, should go without healthcare that can get access to it. I am excited that people can actually get these packets, get themselves renewed. Now, mind you, before COVID everyone knew that there was an annual renewal process. All the FEDs, the federal government and the state governments are doing is reinstating that renewal process. But they’re in California. And there were about a million, if not more than a million people that were able to access Medi-Cal during COVID that never seen this process before. They’re going to be surprised. If you see the billboards out there, whether they’re Health Plan or another organization, or the state cover, California, all of those things, pay attention to them. The ads I saw, the ads are running on television, watch TV. And I’ve seen about five times the ads run on Spotify, on Apple Music, on Pandora.

The little ads, if you don’t have paid use, the free ones. I used the free ones at home, I mean at outside, paid ones at home, the ads are running. I heard the ads, they’re all running. It’s important to get those packets back. That again gets to that. Your health is your wealth.

Melyssa Barrett: Yes.

Vena Ford: And not filling out this packet that may take you an hour could be a huge impact and blow to your health. If I can appeal anybody, if you know anyone on Medi-Cal, if you have anyone on Medi-Cal, if you’re a Medi-Cal yourself or you’ve known people in your church, your groups and the school, at your work who might accent Medi-Cal, tell them to get their packages back. Tell them the renewal, it is important. And there’s nothing to be worried about, ashamed about or anything. Because the great thing in California says, “Oh, well if you don’t qualify, here, let’s go find something else important.” That’s one great thing about our state is that they don’t want to leave anyone behind.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, I love it. That’s awesome. Well, and you talk about the financial stability and sustainability and success. This is how we do it, is we connect these dots. I want to give another quick shout-out to you and all of your, my D9 sisters. I know you’re an AKA, so I’m a, I’m going to give a shout-out to the AKAs even though I’m a Delta. But we are sisters in-

Vena Ford: We are sisters.

Melyssa Barrett: We are sisters, so I just want to thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation. And just really excited about what you guys are doing. And I know for those of you that will see Health Plan of San Joaquin up in June, they’ll be at probably every Juneteenth event. Definitely give them a shout-out and come hang out at their tent, because I’m sure I’ll be close by.

Vena Ford: Yes. Yeah, I do want to mention that, especially in the black communities, the D9, we love partnering with you all. Not just because I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, but because you all are really great humanity organizers, you’re very close to the community. You’re close to providing resources and research and networking opportunities to the community. I encourage all members of the D9, all organizations in our areas to come together, as well as with all of our association and organizations and community. And one of the things I learned when I was doing the disparities project is they, anything we do to black people and everybody. We are such touchy people. We love everyone. And for the most part. And so when you change me, you’re changing my neighbor who might not look like me, but I can out share information with him and his family, but other neighbors who might not look like me and their family.

And so I encourage us to step up. We’ve done a campaign we’re D9 around COVID. We’ll probably look to you all to provide some leadership soon. And yes, we will be at Juneteenth. I been Stockten, Tracy and I believe a dentist level. So come by our tent, come get some stuff. We will have fans, is not what we are.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, we going to need some fans.

Vena Ford: Yes, come play with us. We’re going to have opportunities for children to learn. We’re going to have books, we’re going to have things out there. But come by and learn a little bit more. Ask the questions, ask the hard questions. I will say the staff that is there can answer them. And the one great thing is if they can’t answer the question, then we’ll take your information and connect you to whomever you need to answer that question. So, please, please come by. If you see me out there, just shout me out. I’ll be around, try to stay cool.

And then if you need anything from us, one of the things we want to do or we continue to do is to make ourselves available through the full community. We’re here for everyone. We’re not here for just one group or another. We know that African American Health Disparities have a all time high and our results are all time low. But there are other communities that have settle, including our counterparts, that not are necessarily considered minorities. And one of the things I want to say, at least in our community here, we really need to focus on getting people to their doctors. I think I said it twice already, and say it again, if you know someone, get them back in to the doctors. Get women their mammograms. I do mammograms and lunch. Once I go get your mammogram, you want me to drive, I’ll buy lunch on me for you to get your mammograms.

Make sure men are going in for their checks. Make sure people, the babies are going in for their immunizations. And then our mamas, our new mamas, our newly pregnant mamas go in to the doctor to take care of the wellbeing of their baby as the baby is growing. And then try learn all the great stuff you don’t just know. Having done maternal child health week or month and Maternal Health Day, I was intrigued by all the stuff I didn’t know. So believe me, I’m intrigued. There’s so much for all of us to won. It is been my blessing and on behalf of Health Plan of San Joaquin and our intern director [inaudible 00:58:59], and our executives that I thank you for having us today. And anytime you want us to come and talk, or I could, if not me, y’all will always get someone else to do it. We are definitely for the community, by the community, and about the community.

Melyssa Barrett: Awesome. Awesome.

Vena Ford: We’re here. We’re not going nowhere.

Melyssa Barrett: Thank you so much, Vena Ford. You are a treasure and we appreciate all the work that you and the entire team do. So, shout-out to the team as well. If I start naming them, I’ll probably miss somebody. I’ll just say shout-out to the team.

Vena Ford: Yes

Melyssa Barrett: But thank you so much for coming and we looked forward to having you come back and talk a little bit more about the impact on the community as well, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to hold you to that.

Vena Ford: All right. Thank you, Melyssa. Thank you, Jali. Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett: Pleasure. My pleasure. Take care.

Vena Ford: Alrighty, bye-bye.

Melyssa Barrett: Thanks for joining me on The Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.