It’s a new twist on an old concept: employ peers of low-income patients to go out into the community and work with those recently hospitalized to ensure that they are getting the care and assistance they need to recover from their illnesses and injuries.

Traditionally employed by local health departments and other government agencies, community health workers are increasingly being hired by hospitals to reach out to challenging patients and help prevent readmissions to the hospitals for which Medicare (through its hospital readmissions reduction program), and increasingly state Medicaid programs as well, penalize them.

And the early results are encouraging: some hospitals that employ community health workers have lowered their Medicare readmissions and avoided federal penalties.

Among the challenges hospitals face in employing such an approach is how to pay for community health workers. Some do so out of operating funds; others receive foundation grants; some have obtained funding from the federal government and some through enhanced Medicaid payments for this purpose; and even health insurers, lured by the prospect of reducing the cost of claims, have started helping.

kaiser health newsFor a closer look at how community health workers are helping hospitals keep their patients healthier and out of the hospital, see the Kaiser Health News report “Hospitals Eye Community Health Workers to Cultivate Patient Success.”