While riddled with unique challenges, adversities and hardships, 2020 brought out the best in many people, especially those continuing to deliver care to individuals who needed it most. And healthcare providers weren’t the only ones showing up with acts of resiliency, compassion and generosity during this time of hardship, particularly in one Louisiana community.
After Hurricane Laura battered southern parts of the state in late August, the Category 4 storm left the community to pick up the pieces. Residents were suddenly not only battling the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the aftermath of a devastating hurricane. Among those working to build back their community and continue care delivery was Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge (VOAGBR).
Providing services to the most vulnerable, the 100-year-old behavioral health organization offers care to a wide range of individuals, including veterans, families, children and more. They also offer housing programs, intellectual and development disabilities (I/DD) services, mental health case management and homeless outreach. Located across the southwest region of Louisiana, spanning from Baton Rouge to St. Charles, VOAGBR was faced with a challenging year that proved their sense of compassion, strength and above all, resiliency.
“Like everyone else in our area, we had to adjust to the times and the array of challenges we were facing,” Vice President and Chief Development Officer, Allison Traxler, said. “Our mission is to go where we’re needed and do whatever comes to hand, and that’s what we did.”
Although a year full of difficulties, VOAGBR learned a lot of lessons, one being the importance of leveraging technology in all operational settings. Their electronic health record (EHR) not only allows staff to maintain, track, monitor clients, but also makes information quickly available to send to managed care organizations, helping VOAGBR get paid for services. In addition, their EHR systems helped keep documentation safe during Hurricane Laura.
“A realization we had with Laura was the importance of electronic records,” Anderson said. “We’ve been moving away from paper after partnering with Netsmart about three years ago. After records onsite got wet and ruined, we’re even more ready to leave that workflow behind and move more toward electronic records.”
The organization also learned the versatility of virtual care delivery and using technology to work from disparate settings. When COVID-19 first surfaced, like many other healthcare providers VOAGBR quickly adjusted many of their services to meet new restrictions and protocols. Virtual care and telehealth played a critical role in continuing service delivery, especially for behavioral health care. While their telehealth services were slowly ramping up before the pandemic, COVD-19 brought them to the forefront, which was both a challenge and blessing for VOAGBR and their clients.
“There’s been a lot of technology use for virtual care, which has helped us through this both operationally and financially,” Vice President and CFO, Terry Anderson, CPA, said. “We’ve had to lean on technology quite a bit to help us deliver services, which is great. However, people are struggling without that human interaction.”
Face-to-face contact is a critical part of their services, especially for case managers. Typically, staff will conduct in-home visits with families, making sure their clients are safe, adhering to their medications and following their treatment plan. All of which can be difficult to do virtually. This rings true regarding not only for the quality of the visit, but also when working to generate claims to bill for services. VOAGBR collects funding from Medicaid, therefore continuing standard services is key.
Anderson noted that it’s often easier to go into a client’s home or care facility and get an hour’s worth of service completed. When first beginning virtual services at the start of the pandemic, it was challenging for VOAGBR providers to keep clients on the phone and engaged for an entire session. This resulted in billing less hours initially, causing a dip in generated income.
“We had to quickly learn how to keep the client engaged and have meaningful conversations without the convenience of sitting in their home at the
And just as VOAGBR pivoted to adjust their programs, outreach and services for COVID-19, Hurricane Laura brought a whole new set of challenges. Homes, businesses and community resources were destroyed, causing clients’ current needs to change. Instead of behavioral health care, individuals needed basic necessities such as water, batteries, charcoal and toiletries. While standard care delivery continued, VOAGBR shifted a large part of their focus to meet new, immediate community needs.
“How do we continue to serve these the people in any way we can?” Traxler said. “If programs are shut or no one is coming to our respite day center right now, we don’t have a need for a receptionist. Staff had to quickly change direction and assist where they were needed, whether that was unloading trucks of personal protective equipment (PPE) or hurricane supplies.”
In addition to partnering with the state to collect and deliver necessities and goods, VOAGBR did not stop providing services. After many of their office buildings, treatment centers and program homes were destroyed by Laura, VOAGBR improvised.
Case managers will now start to set up shop in parking lots to conduct sessions and provide medical care. Clinicians will provide intake services out of a new van equipped with remote services technology because their building was flooded. When the homeless program was closed, staff sought people out in the streets.
“Our staff are givers,” Traxler said. “They’ve got a real place in their hearts for serving the sick, the poor, the hungry, everybody. They relied on their faith and kept hope that this will be over one day.”
The organization received an ample amount of donations and funding during this time, from both local residents and federal programs and corporations. It was clear people and organizations who were able to give were eager and ready to do so. For this year’s VOAGBR School Readiness Tax Credit program, one staff member had a pretty lofty fundraiser goal: $50,000 more than years past. Initially, leadership and other staff were uncertain if they’d be able to raise that much funding, hoping to maybe raise half that number given the year their community was having. However, donors responded without hesitation. This staff member ended up having a banner year, raising almost $100,000 more than her year prior and $150,000 more than goal.
“We were so amazed people still wanted to give amid everything that was going on,” Traxler said. “She ended up with her best year yet, more than we ever thought possible.”
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