Kansas Peer Driver Program Improves Health Outcomes and Quality of Life

A key aspect of maintaining and achieving successful member outcomes is making sure that members have a way to get to their medical appointments. But for many of our members who have behavioral health conditions and intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), transportation is one of the largest barriers to seeking care.

To address this need, UnitedHealthcare Community & State partnered with the Johnson County Mental Health Center (JCMHC) to start the Peer Driver Program in Johnson County, Kansas. JCMHC is a leader in providing employment services in Kansas for individuals with behavioral health conditions and I/DD. By starting with JCMHC’s established transportation program as our foundation, we were able to combine our extensive services with the long-term connections many of the JCMHC case managers and providers have with our members.

Now in its fourth year of operation, the program employs members with behavioral health conditions to drive their peers to their place of employment, school, social services, and mental health and medical appointments. Through this model, we can improve health outcomes, reduce care costs and help members gain and keep employment.

Whole person care improves quality of life

The Peer Driver Program helps fill the care gap left by the Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT) Program, which does not coordinate transportation for needs outside of medical care. Through our program, members can sign up for reliable transportation for both medical and non-medical needs, improving both their health outcomes and their quality of life. These types of wraparound services not only benefit the member but cut back on emergency room costs through proactive interventions.

The program also supports workforce development opportunities for members with behavioral health conditions who want to be employed. When our members have employment, they are more likely to engage with their health care benefits, ultimately leading to better health outcomes. This program helps offset the difficulty for members with behavioral health conditions to gain and remain employed due to the unique challenges that they face. 

The Peer Driver Program currently employs 53 trained, part-time members as drivers, allowing them to still be eligible for Medicaid benefits while also providing them with income and a work environment that is understanding of their condition. This also helps individuals who are looking to acclimate and transition into full-time employment in the future. For members with an I/DD, we have also started an employment apprenticeship program and are currently training 7 members for future employment with UnitedHealthcare Community & State.  

The program has reduced care costs for individuals with behavioral health conditions in the program by 40%, which can be directly traced back to a reduction in inpatient and emergency visits. We have served approximately 30 individuals with behavioral health conditions each year through these services, with 85% of participants successfully entering employment. And since initiating I/DD services in 2019, we have served approximately a dozen individuals, all of whom have entered employment. 

Providing consistent, dependable transportation for members

Many of the drivers and passengers in the Peer Driver Program have faced long-term challenges. But because they often share similar life experiences, leveraging peer-to-peer engagement helps members feel more comfortable and provides an opportunity to interact with others in their community. 

The program also simplifies the process of scheduling transportation, making it more accessible for members who experience difficulties communicating due to conditions such as anxiety and depression. When members need to coordinate transportation, the program’s one-call model puts them in touch with the driver who will pick them up, making communications easy, predictable and dependable. In most cases, drivers have regular passengers, allowing members to create a routine that brings a sense of stability to the work.

Program adjusts under COVID-19 restrictions 

Part of the program’s success is built on helping our members get and keep jobs through adequate transportation. When the economy is doing well, it is easier for individuals with behavioral health conditions and I/DD to find employment, as there is often not enough people to fill open positions in the community. But immediately following the onset of COVID-19, the program experienced a slow-down, as far fewer individuals were doing in-person work and driver training sites closed.

As a way to offset this slow down, many of our drivers worked with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those facing food insecurity during the pandemic. This partnership helped keep drivers employed and connected with our program. Because many of our drivers are challenged by anxiety, especially during a global pandemic, this employment opportunity also helped to provide stable routine, which ultimately supported these individuals during a time of uncertainty. 

For drivers still working within the Peer Driver Program, plastic shields have been installed in vehicles to protect both members. And because many of our drivers interact with the same passengers on a regular basis, the program’s model has helped keep new interactions minimal, reducing the risk of spreading the virus.

Continual monitoring helps gauge impact

Since the start of the program, we have monitored its positive impact on the reduction in missed appointments, emergency room utilization and employment rates among the members who have engaged with the program. Moving forward, we will continue to monitor the program’s benefits and explore opportunities for growth. 

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