In February 2014, the ProMedica health system and the Alliance to End Hunger held the “Come to the Table” summit in Washington, D.C., both to invite more health organizations to recognize hunger as a health issue and to press legislators to protect food-related programs and policies. It was there that Randy Oostra, CEO of Toledo, Ohio-based ProMedica, and Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, recognized how strongly their missions aligned and how much more they might achieve together. The result is The Root Cause Coalition, launched in 2015.

Health systems’ dedication to clinical care is not enough, Oostra says. “Environmental and socio-economic needs far exceed the impact of health services. If we’re going to address the overall health and wellbeing of patients, we have to change as an industry into organizations that value (addressing) those social determinants as much as clinical support. You have to ask what you can do with the influence you have to identify and connect people without duplicating existing community resources.”

Ryerson adds, “The Root Cause Coalition is a natural extension of the AARP Foundation’s work. It allows organizations to more immediately connect with health systems in their community, building more meaningful bridges that will have a greater social impact.”

The Coalition’s inaugural partners include Dignity Health, Ascension, Humana, Feeding America, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and the American Hospital Association and 11 other related organizations.

“When AHA board member Randy Oostra approached us about the Root Cause Coalition, we immediately got behind the effort,” says Ken Anderson, D.O., chief operating officer of the AHA’s Health Research & Educational Trust. “It’s a natural fit, given the AHA’s goal to improve both the short- and long-term health of our communities.” HRET, in collaboration with the AHA’s Association for Community Health Improvement, acts as a research liaison to the Coalition, disseminating best practices and contributing its findings on food insecurity and how social determinants such as jobs, transportation and housing affect care cost and quality.

“The Coalition has helped connect the dots to lift up the best ideas and solve replication of scale,” Ryerson says. “It’s gotten us out of our silos and brought people into a shared space, learning about interrelated issues and focusing on action.”

Addressing the social determinants of care across the country has to be approached “as a national committee,” agrees Rachelle Reyes Wenger, director of public policy and community advocacy for Dignity Health, and chair of the Coalition’s advocacy subcommittee. “We can’t operate in a business-as-usual fashion because nothing is as usual. Health care is a very sought-after voice and we can use our voice to create policy that addresses all barriers to health.”

The Coalition will hold its first annual National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health December 5-6 in Chicago. AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack will be among the keynote speakers. You can find more information here.

For more information on this issue, see our Food Insecurity page with links to H&HN coverage and other AHA resources.