When she lived in a St. Paul apartment building, Ya Landa Kinchelow and her younger son suffered asthma flare-ups that regularly forced trips to the emergency room.
That all changed four years ago when the family traded an apartment with moldy walls and smoky halls for a home built by Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing.
"He's asthma free," Kinchelow said of her son. "My lungs are fine, and I have not had an asthma-related incident since I've been in my home."
Kinchelow shared her story at a Tuesday luncheon in Minneapolis where chief executives from three of the state's largest health systems put a spotlight on the links between housing and health.
The panel discussion drew more than 300 people and was the third annual event by "Women of Habitat," a group that promotes women as philanthropists and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
"We know inequality in housing threatens our region's long-term growth potential," said Susan Haigh, president and chief executive of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. "We know health care costs must be contained. And we know both of these abstract policy statements hit home for real low-income families every single day."
People think about their health as being driven by individual factors, but a lot of it depends on where they live, said Mary Brainerd, the chief executive of Bloomington-based HealthPartners, one of the state's largest operators of hospitals and clinics.
About 40 percent of health is determined by socioeconomic factors in communities, Brainerd said, pointing to research showing that the ZIP code where people live is a major determinant of life expectancy and quality of life.
Housing is a big part of the equation, said Kathryn Correia, the chief executive at HealthEast, a large operator of hospitals and clinics in the east metro.
Correia told about the struggles of in-home nurses to care for a patient who lived in a condemned building, then in a basement room that was damp and lacked ventilation.
"There was no way they could take care of his wound, let alone the other issues, in that housing situation," she said. "They needed to do a referral for [the patient] to be able to go back institutionally to get care."
Dr. Penny Wheeler, the chief executive at Minneapolis-based Allina Health System, described one of her first obstetric patients who needed help with her premature labor. Wheeler described her sense of pride at being able to guide her patient to the textbook approach to care, including strict bed rest.
"She turned to me, and she said 'I don't have a bed,' " Wheeler said. "And it's like, wow, the worlds collided. That textbook didn't match the people's lives that we were trying to deal with."
Wheeler described an outreach effort at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis to help people in neighborhoods surrounding the medical center improve their health. Hospital officials thought they would help with things like controlling diabetes, Wheeler said, but quickly learned that community members had a much broader definition of health.
"What they told us is … we want to be safe," Wheeler said. "We want to have a roof over our head. We want to have food to eat on our table. And we want to have a community that we feel is supportive."
Allina, HealthEast and HealthPartners collectively employ more than 50,000 people, and posted a combined total of about $10 billion in revenue during fiscal 2014.
So, what are health systems doing about housing?
Allina points to a program at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute that helps people with disabilities and chronic health conditions find housing that is accessible and affordable. A HealthEast clinic in Maplewood helps patients who have received eviction notices deal with landlords.
At Regions Hospital in St. Paul, which is part of the HealthPartners system, emergency room staff members work with a local nonprofit to connect patients with housing subsidies. Over six years, the program has reduced ER visits among participants by 68 percent after enrollment, and helped most maintain stable homes, said spokesman Vince Rivard.
In an e-mail, Rivard wrote: "Lack of housing is one of the biggest barriers for patients across our organization."