Lessons from Rhode Island: How to Effectively Blend, Braid, and Use Block Grant Funds to Improve Public Health

BB GraphicWhen Rhode Island health policymakers read the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy People 2010 report, they realized their children’s generation could face a shorter life expectancy than their own unless they changed their approach to public health. In response, Department of Health officials doubled down on their commitment to address health disparities and improve the social factors that directly affect health, such as housing and nutrition.

At the same time, they understood they needed a new financial approach to support their growing focus on improving health and health equity and reducing obstacles such as poverty, discrimination, poor education, and unsafe environments. Their solution: braided funding from a number of sources to help realign staff, break down organizational silos, and promote cross-sector collaboration.

The department first tested its innovative, collaborative approach through integrated projects, such as bringing together staff from diabetes, obesity, and maternal and child health programs and recruiting community partners to work on a shared initiative. When those initial projects proved successful, they took stock of their funding sources and looked for opportunities to divest from disease-specific funding sources and invest instead in more community-focused funding.

Ana Novais, executive director of health in Rhode Island's Department of Health
Ana Novais, executive director of health in Rhode Island’s Department of Health

“Where is the funding for doing this kind of work?” observed Ana Novais, executive director of health in Rhode Island’s Department of Health. “There is no health equity funding being given to us, but nearly every proposal or grant we receive mentions health disparities.”

Rhode Island ultimately designed a method for “braiding” together funds from several sources to support its work to improve health equity. Officials wove together federal funds from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Preventive Health and Health Services Block, and two different chronic disease grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They combined these federal funding streams with state funds, designed their work plan to meet both the department’s health equity goals as well as the various federal grants’ requirements, and then requested proposals from community organizations to improve health equity.

Novais explained the proposal asked communities to define themselves as health equity zones and submit proposals to prevent chronic diseases, improve birth outcomes, and improve the social and environmental conditions of neighborhoods across the state. See NASHP’s In the Zone for more about Rhode Island’s work to advance health equity and community health.

Novais recently shared her expertise and experience when she chaired a session on braiding and blending funds for improved population health at the annual 2017 NASHP state health policy conference held in late October. The session, presented in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation, also featured state officials from Louisiana, Vermont, and South Carolina. Each state uses innovative braiding or blending models to address non-clinical health needs that affect public health through programs such as supportive housing and nurse home visiting for low-income, first-time mothers.

These innovative strategies may become even more important — and more widespread — in the wake of federal proposals to create block grants and cut state public health funding. A number of state health policymakers expressed concern that the flexibility provided by block grants may not adequately compensate for cuts to already lean public health budgets. To help state health policymakers prepare for and respond to such proposed changes, NASHP, the de Beaumont Foundation, and the Association of State and Territorial Health officials recently convened a group of state health policymakers from 11 states to strategically address opportunities and challenges that may result from potential changes to the federal funding landscape.

A new NASHP report, Blending, Braiding, and Block-Granting Funds for Public Health and Prevention: Implications for States, charts a way forward for states interested in maximizing their abilities to coordinate work and resources across programs. It distils ideas from the recent meeting of state leaders and explores state responses to possible federal funding scenarios. The report also:

  • Surveys historic and existing sources of block grants and disease- or condition-specific federal funding;
  • Examines how states currently use those funds; and
  • Poses key questions for officials to ponder in the months ahead.

In this time of rapid policy changes, it is important to learn from states working to align their funding sources to advance their population health and prevention goals. “This paper is an important and much-needed resource for state officials seeking to improve health and health equity by investing in building stronger, healthier, and more resilient communities during this time of change,” said Novais.

Presented in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation.