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Apply now: Health Related Social Needs Community Capacity Building Funding is available.

Priority area: Traditional health workers

At Columbia Pacific CCO, we’ve long recognized the vital role traditional health workers (THWs) play in helping our members live healthy lives.

THWs are certified public health professionals who work for community-based organizations or health care providers. They provide physical and behavioral health services to individuals and often have personal experience in their fields of expertise. By providing services in a way that’s culturally relevant, in a member’s preferred language and with an understanding of a member’s lived experience, THWs build deep and trusting relationships in their communities. They walk alongside our members to help them navigate complex systems and, in doing so, promote health equity.

Although THWs have been part of the U.S. health care landscape for decades, there has long been a mismatch in our region between the need for THWs and the capacity of the existing workforce. That’s why we’re working to build capacity through grant making and professional support to community-based organizations and providers.

“At Columbia Pacific, we have a history of valuing traditional health workers and recognizing the impact they have on improving health and wellbeing. This isn’t just something we think is a good idea. There is research and data that demonstrate that this type of worker can make a significant difference in people’s lives and change outcomes,” said Nancy Knopf, Columbia Pacific’s Community Health Partner Manager.

In July 2021, our Board of Directors approved a nearly $1.1 million grant program that builds on our previous efforts to expand workforce capacity. The two-year program will award grants to clinical and community-based organizations to optimize and/or expand existing THW programs or start new ones. Grant recipients will also receive technical assistance from our staff and participate in learning collaboratives focused on best practices related to staffing models, supervision of THWs and other topics. One of our primary goals is to help grantees develop sustainable payment models for THWs, whether traditional fee-for-service or value-based.

“Our grant program is really about capacity building in the THW workforce, but also making sure that we’re doing it in a way that honors the fidelity of the model of care of traditional health workers and creates sustainable payment pathways,” explained Keshia Bigler, Columbia Pacific’s Population Health Portfolio Manager.

Peer support specialists, a type of THW, have been a major focus of our capacity-building efforts. Through grants and contracts, we’ve funded peer support specialists for our providers and also connected providers with funding opportunities, such as the state’s PRIME+ program. PRIME+ has played a role in reducing drug overdoses by placing peer recovery support specialists in emergency departments and other clinical settings, where they draw on their training and their own experiences with mental health and substance use issues to connect others to care.

We’ve also supported our community partners, such as the Tillamook County Family YMCA, through one-time grants for such purposes as staff training. At the Tillamook YMCA, certified community health workers help connect members to classes, care and social services tailored to their needs through one-on-one risk assessments and follow up. They also lead critical health-promotion programs in our region, including the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program.

“Just giving someone a pamphlet to let them know what’s available to them isn’t always very effective,” said Kelly Benson, a certified Community Health Worker who serves as Tillamook YMCA’s Healthy Living Director.

Through a Columbia Pacific grant, Benson completed Oregon State University’s Community Health Worker Training Program in 2018. Raised in Tillamook County, Benson has faced many of the same struggles as the people she serves. And that makes a difference, says Benson, who raised three children on her own and knows from first-hand experience how hard it can be to make ends meet and find time for self-care.

“I understand the people in our community and some of the challenges they have living on the Coast. Knowing that money is sometimes tight and taking care of yourself sometimes slips as a priority can make it easier for me to relate to people,” said Benson.

If you’d like information about upcoming opportunities to learn more about our new THW grant program, please get in touch with Susan Palmer, Columbia Pacific’s Traditional Health Worker Liaison, at

To see the full Regional Health Improvement Plan click here.

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