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MI Social Workers Wear Many New Hats with Health-Care Reform

December 19, 2013

FLINT, Mich. - Social workers in Michigan are learning to wear many hats as health care reform is implemented. The expansion of Medicaid and the establishment of the state Health Insurance Exchange is vastly expanding health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Michiganders.

Executive director of the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton-Eaton-Ingham Counties Robert Sheehan said this will broaden the scope of social workers.

"Social workers will be taking on actually a traditional social-work role, to integrate the care that our patients, clients, consumers get, between their primary-care provider, their behavioral health-care provider, their housing provider, employment and legal systems," Sheehan said.

Because of payment and employment structures, over time many social workers have become specialists. As this new model of the health care industry is molded, many social workers are expanding their own expertise. However, Sheehan said, more training opportunities are needed to help social workers become aware of all the dimensions of human need. NASW-Michigan is developing a model that has social workers playing a key role in integrated health care.

It will be a challenge for some agencies as they re-calibrate the role, Sheehan said. Some will take on larger caseloads where the work is simpler, and others will take fewer cases but more intensive clients. What will help, he noted, is the addition of peer support specialists or community health workers, who will work with them as a team to connect clients to resources.

"They'll have these paraprofessionals around them to tie consumers, clients, patients to those needs in partnership with the social worker, so the social worker's role will become more of a therapist/integrator/orchestra leader," he explained.

Research shows that integrated care is key in improving health outcomes, quality of life and reducing costs, he said, estimating that about half of the 22,000 licensed social workers in Michigan will take on this new role of health-care integrator.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MI