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United Way of Lancaster County


DHS launches ‘PA Navigate’ social service referral platform

Pa. Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh speaks about PA Navigate at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh visited Lancaster on Tuesday to announce the launch of an IT application intended to make it easer for medical professionals, nonprofits and the public at large to find social services and refer people to them.

PA Navigate is designed to integrate health care and social service providers in a single, seamless information network. By reducing barriers to care and improving health outcomes, it will provide “a better quality of life for all Pennsylvanians,” Arkoosh said at a media event at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.

The PA Navigate web portal.

She emphasized its potential for helping medical professionals address “social determinants of health” — factors, such as person’s level of access to healthy food or places to exercise, that can enhance or impair health over a lifetime. Social determinants of health account for up to 90% of medical outcomes, according to the National Academy of Medicine.

To explain PA Navigate, Arkoosh used an example: A doctor learns that one of her patients is food-insecure. Normally, that might lead to her providing a phone number to a food pantry, leaving it to the patient to follow up.

With PA Navigate, the referral would be handled like a medical referral to a specialist, Arkoosh said. The doctor would document the issue directly on the patient’s electronical medical record, or EMR, then send an electronic notification to the food pantry with all the necessary information.

The food bank would then follow up with the patient. When the patient receives groceries, the food bank’s documentation would flow back to the EMR, completing a “closed loop.”

(Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Modeled on Empower Lancaster

The push for something like PA Navigate has been ongoing since at least 2018, said Commissioner Alice Yoder, who until recently supervised community health at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. It’s exciting that it’s finally here, she said.

Keith Cromwell

PA Navigate is designed to complement the case management and referral systems already used by organizations and communities, not compete with them, Arkoosh said.

Indeed, PA Navigate was built off of a local “grassroots” initiative, said Keith Cromwell, namely Empower Lancaster, a unified case management and referral system commissioned and used by a coalition of Lancaster County nonprofits.

Cromwell is program director of Central PA Connect, administered by Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. It is one of five health information exchanges that handle the secure transfer of EMRs statewide. They helped bring health systems and medical providers onto the platform and integrate their EMRs with it.

United Way of Lancaster County operates PA 211 East, part of United Way’s nationwide 211 referral system. It is available 24/7 and users can text or talk directly to a trained “resource navigator” who can help them find appropriate services.

In 2023, PA 211 fielded more than 250,000 calls statewide, including more than 50,000 in Lancaster County.

In a statement, the nonprofit said it is “continuing to explore how United Way/PA 211 may partner with PA Navigate in the future to better serve our respective communities within the commonwealth.”

“As always,” it said, “United Way and PA 211 will continue to work to put community at the center of conversation, aiming to help anyone in need within all PA communities.”

Vanessa Philbert

Vanessa Philbert, CEO of Community Action Partnership, said it will take time for nonprofits to figure out how to incorporate PA Navigate into their operations. The answer will likely be different depending on size, technological wherewithal and so on, she said.

PA Navigate is built on a platform developed by Findhelp, a provider of “social care” IT products. A state appropriation of $15.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds is covering initial development costs and the first five years of operation.

Erine Gray

Its database has been populated with about 7,800 organizations and programs, Findhelp CEO Erine Gray said. Organizations are encouraged to “claim” their listings, add detail and keep them updated. It’s “to some degree on them” to keep their listing accurate, Arkoosh said.

It is accessible to the general public via its web portal, allowing people to search for social services themselves or on behalf of others. A “share” function allows people to send information on programs to each other via email, text or Facebook.

There is no cost to end users or nonprofits. The exception would be if an organization wants to integrate its case management system with PA Navigate; that may incur a fee, depending on what’s involved, Cromwell said.

Referrals are always made with clients’ consent, Cromwell said. The type of information sent to nonprofits hasn’t changed, so there is no additional burden on them with regard to confidentiality or security, he said.