In an unusual move, Contra Costa Health Services employees have begun to advise low-income families on the best way to manage their finances. The innovative approach, dubbed BEST, is needed, health leaders say, to tackle the East Bay's widespread health inequities.

In the program's first phase, county health employees who visit pregnant women and young mothers in their homes will assist them with their financial concerns and help them apply for public benefits, repair their credit ratings, open checking or savings accounts, and use prepaid debit cards.

So what does this have to do with health?

"Improving families' financial status will increase their access to health care, improve their housing situations, offer opportunities to live in safer and healthier neighborhoods, increase food security, and enhance other protective social and environmental factors," a county report states.

Contra Costa is tackling health inequities on several fronts, often by partnering with community organizations, notes Concepcion James, manager of the county's Reducing Health Disparities unit. Programs include:

  • Working in 2006 with a Latina action team in the Pittsburg and Bay Point area. Members discovered that their drinking water had a higher concentration of trihalomethanes than water in other East County communities. At high levels, trihalomethanes can increase the risk of some cancers. Health department staffers helped residents understand the complex data and persuade the Public Utilities Commission to delay a rate increase.


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  • Helping to set up peer support groups led by local residents in low-income African-American and Latino communities for those with asthma, diabetes and other conditions.

  • Forming a coalition to address the low rate of early diagnosis of breast cancer among African-American women. The group nearly eliminated the gap.

  • Providing interpreters and training staffers to work with people from a variety of races and cultures.