Community Health Center Staff Perspectives on Financial Payments for Social Care

Early View Original Scholarship
Population Health

Policy Points:

  • State and federal payers are actively considering strategies to increase the adoption of social risk screening and interventions in health care settings, including through the use of financial incentives.
  • Activities related to social care in Oregon community health centers (CHCs) provided a unique opportunity to explore whether and how fee-for-service payments for social risk screening and navigation influence CHC activities.
  • CHC staff, clinicians, and administrative leaders were often unaware of existing financial payments for social risk screening and navigation services. As currently designed, fee-for-service payments are unlikely to strongly influence CHC social care practices.

Context: A growing crop of national policies has emerged to encourage health care delivery systems to ask about and try to address patients’ social risks, e.g., food, housing, and transportation insecurity, in care delivery contexts. In this study, we explored how community health center (CHC) staff perceive the current and potential influence of fee-for-service payments on clinical teams’ engagement in these activities.

Methods: We interviewed 42 clinicians, frontline staff, and administrative leaders from 12 Oregon CHC clinical sites about their social care initiatives, including about the role of existing or anticipated financial payments intended to promote social risk screening and referrals to social services. Data were analyzed using both inductive and deductive thematic analysis approaches.

Findings: We grouped findings into three categories: participants’ awareness of existing or anticipated financial incentives, uses for incentive dollars, and perceived impact of financial incentives on social care activities in clinical practices. Lack of awareness of existing incentives meant these incentives were not perceived to influence the behaviors of staff responsible for conducting screening and providing referrals. Current or anticipated meaningful uses for incentive dollars included paying for social care staff, providing social services, and supporting additional fundraising efforts. Frontline staff reported that the strongest motivator for clinic social care practices was the ability to provide responsive social services. Clinic leaders/managers noted that for financial incentives to substantively change CHC practices would require payments sizable enough to expand the social care workforce as well.

Conclusions: Small fee-for-service payments to CHCs for social risk screening and navigation services are unlikely to markedly influence CHC social care practices. Refining the design of financial incentives—e.g., by increasing clinical teams’ awareness of incentives, linking screening to well-funded social services, and changing incentive amounts to support social care staffing needs—may increase the uptake of social care practices in CHCs.


Lopez JM. Wing H, Ackerman SL, Hessler D, Gottlieb LM. Community Health Center Staff Perspectives on Financial Payments for Social Care. Milbank Q. 2023;101(4):0821.