The new retail pharmacy that opened on the second floor of Saint James Health on Lafayette Street in Newark is everything you would hope to find at a Federally Qualified Health Center.
The pharmacy provides 340B discounted medication (which means it enables Medicaid patients to get the medicine they need at a fully covered price), provides education to patients on drug interaction and allows patients to pick up prescriptions at the time of their appointment, improving affordability and access.
And, since the pharmacy provides direct access to Saint James doctors, nurse practitioners and pharmacists, it also helps create a collaborative clinical care team for residents in need.
But that is not what makes what is going on at Saint James special.
The FQHC is working in conjunction with RWJBarnabas Health and its Healthy Newark project, an initiative that started in 2022 following a $25 million allocation from the state.
The funding was intended to help RWJBarnabas Health fill in the missing gaps in health care in the state’s biggest city — especially surrounding issues caused by social determinants of health (which includes everything from poor housing and food insecurity to crime, systemic racism and mental health issues).
The retail pharmacy is just a starting point for how the program is impacting Newark.
On the fifth floor of the building, Saint James is opening a food “Farmacy” — which represents a new way to combat food insecurity.
The Farmacy is a healthy food pantry offering fresh produce, refrigerated food and shelf-stable food for Saint James Health FQHC patients who have received referrals from their physician or a clinician.
The Food Farmacy improves access to healthy food in an area identified as a food desert. And, as part of the program, a registered dietician provides nutrition counseling and education to help participants learn how to cook and eat healthfully to improve chronic conditions and to understand why healthy eating is important for overall health and well-being.
The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is supporting the effort as an agency partner of RWJBarnabas Health and Saint James health to enhance the supply of shelf-stable products that are available.
Balpreet Grewal-Virk, a senior vice president at RWJBarnabas Health who is leading the Healthy Newark project, said the initiatives at Saint James represent much of what is possible in the ultimate of health challenges.
“We really want to close the gaps in care wherever we see them,” she said. “We’ll continue to confront chronic diseases — whether it is heart health, cancer, diabetes, asthma and all the things that plague underserved communities — but we really wanted to take it a step further back and address those social determinants of health.
“Access to health care, both having it in your neighborhood or having transportation to it, is so important. These initiatives will go a long way toward making a difference.”
Grewal-Virk said RWJBarnabas Health is working closely with its three area hospitals — Newark Beth Israel and Clara Maass in Newark as well as Trinitas in Elizabeth — but it will also collaborate with others in the city, including University Hospital.
It’s part of an all-in team approach, Grewal-Virk said.
RWJBarnabas Health, which already is seeing early success, started the program with four key goals, she said:
1. Connecting FQHCs with specialty care through electronic medical records: Digital medical records, through software such as EPIC, have helped those in hospitals pass along vital information for years. Too often, that information did not get down to community health workers — the people who connect with those in underserved communities on a more regular basis.
“What ends up happening is patients bounced around from hospital to primary care providers to FQHCs and it’s hard to follow and track them from one visit to the next,” Grewal-Virk said. “Clinicians are lacking vital information, so they are often starting over from one visit to the next. This was a major part of how we invested our funds.”
2. Expanding infrastructure for specialty care: In Newark, it’s more necessary than ever to bring care to the people, many of which have transportation issues. That’s why, at Saint James, RWJBH has embedded an OB/GYN from Newark Beth every Thursday.
“Now, instead of trying to figure out how to fit an appointment to their schedule and worry if they are able to get there, residents can literally walk down the street and get the care they need, whether it’s for maternal health, which is really key here, or any other area,” Grewal-Virk said.
3. Supporting local community programs: So often in health care, new organizations merely try to replace an existing one. That’s not the case here.
“We don’t have to reinvent anything,” Grewal-Virk said. “There are plenty of great organizations, smack in the middle of Newark, that are doing a great job. To me, it’s really working with the existing (ones) to see where and how they’re helping the community and where we can enhance what’s going on. That’s something we’re heavily working on.”
4. Maternal and child health: Caring for mothers and kids should be at the top of the list. Too often, it’s not.
“There were avoidable deaths from asthma last year — and it keeps happening,” Grewal-Virk said. “That’s why really focusing on certain child care areas that are present in Newark are so important. And maternal health is a no-brainer. We know that in underserved communities, women live with disparities, they lack care, they miss appointments and they definitely lag in postpartum care. We need to change that.”
Change is not easy. To have impact, you need to build trust.
Hiring two dozen community health workers — and hiring people from the community to do those jobs — is a key first step.
“We really believe that hiring people from our communities, people who understand what’s going on at the local level, helps enhance trust,” Grewal-Virk said. “There’s nothing like having a neighbor check up on you after appointments, making sure you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.
“And there’s nothing like being able to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I live two blocks down from you, let me tell you where you need to go.’”
Getting there is another issue.
Most Newark residents do not have cars. Some are in wheelchairs or have difficulty walking. Others have child care issues that prevent them from going out alone.
So, while RWJBarnabas Health takes advantage of Uber Health for rides, it also has purchased four cars of its own — ones big enough to bring multiple people to appointments.
Whatever it takes, Grewal-Virk said.
With so many variables — and so many obstacles — measuring success is not easy. And, while Grewal-Virk said the numerous key performance indicators are heading in the right direction, she’s just as eager to talk about how the program itself is growing.
The health system is in talks with projects connected with the Metropolitan Baptist Church and Pastor David Jefferson, one where they will help create a clinic and a child care center.
There’s discussion of a project at Newark East Side High, so students (and their extended families) can have access to a clinic without having to leave school property.
There are plans to build a food hub on Market Street, where residents not only will have access to fresh produce, but access to test kitchens where they can learn to cook healthier meals — all of which will be from Jersey grown produce, keeping all the dollars involved in state.
This sense of working together for a common cause runs through RWJBarnabas Health’s Our Healthy Newark project.
That has been the biggest takeaway, Grewal-Virk said.
“The passion that people have in different communities, from community leaders to the mayor to the local health department — everyone I’ve talked to has wanted to be a part of this,” she said. “Everyone has said, how can we work together, how can we collaborate.
“That’s why we’ve been able to do so much in such a short period of time.”
Reach RWJBarnabas Health at: rwjbh.org or call 888-724-7123.