By Mike Faher
The acronym SASH stands for Support And Services at Home.
But for Geraldine Harrington, it also stands for a critically important mix of companionship and guidance when she needs help.
"I'm thankful that we have SASH. They've been wonderful to me," said Harrington, a four-year resident of Melrose Terrace in Brattleboro. "They all come through just like they are my sisters. I can tell them anything."
Others told similar stories on Monday as they talked about a relatively new health and wellness program that has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of local residents and thousands statewide. They had a sympathetic audience in U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the Vermont Democrat who pledged to seek continued federal support for the program.
"I like this idea of reaching out to your neighbors," Welch said.
"I'm so excited about the work that Vermont has been doing," the congressman added. "I am going to go back and talk to my colleagues ... and be able to confirm for them that, on the ground, this is working."
Welch, who is seeking a new term in the U.S. House and is unopposed in Tuesday's Democratic primary, made a swing through Windham County Monday. That included two stops in Brattleboro, where he met with Melrose Terrace residents and also chatted with constituents at The Works on Main Street.
Additionally, Welch was scheduled to travel to Bellows Falls to visit Chroma Technology.
At the Melrose public housing complex in West Brattleboro, with a small audience gathered in the property's community room, Welch started by reiterating his support for the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "ObamaCare."
"What we're trying to do is make our health care system better for all of us and more affordable for all of us," he said.
Welch also reiterated his displeasure with the Republican-controlled House's numerous attempts to repeal the health-care law.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch speaks with Nancy Anderson at The Works on Monday afternoon during the "Congress In Your Community" event. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
"Most people I meet are dismayed at what is going on in the House of Representatives, and rightly so," Welch said. "What is the sense of repealing something without having any replacement?"
In fact, Welch believes that lawmakers must move beyond the Affordable Care Act and push for further reforms to make health care less expensive and more effective. ObamaCare is "a beginning. It's not the end," Welch said.
The former state senator lauded Vermont's health-care efforts including the state's Blueprint for Health, a chronic-care program. Welch said he has incorporated some elements of that program into new, bipartisan health-care legislation proposed in Congress.
"We took kind of a Vermont idea and brought it to Washington," he said.
The congressman advocates an "integrated approach" to health care. And SASH, the program he heard about on Monday, might be described in that way. SASH is tailored to individuals' needs and is focused on prevention, education and support, administrators said.
It includes services such as a health and wellness assessment; healthy-living planning; an "informed team" to help in times of crisis; support for making transitions from a health-care facility to a home; and a community healthy living plan that includes free exercise classes, education and socialization opportunities.
Also included are check-ins, coaching and nursing support. SASH relies on Medicare funding and can help anyone who is qualified -- not just seniors, administrators say.
The program started in Vermont in 2011 and began in Brattleboro the following year. There are nearly 3,700 people enrolled statewide and 170 enrolled locally.
"We do actually have room to take more people," said Christine Hazzard, the local SASH coordinator. "We're funded to help 200."
SASH is rooted in three public housing complexes operated by Brattleboro Housing Authority -- Melrose, Hayes Court and the Samuel Elliot Apartments. Hazzard said she also has signed up some community members who do not live at those properties.
And she said the program's results have been clear.
"We have made a lot of change," Hazzard said, citing better access to nutrition, a reduction in falls and stronger lines of communication with residents who need help.
"I'm really proud of all of you. You guys are the ones who have put in all this work," Hazzard told program participants at Monday's meeting. "I learn a lot more from you than you'll probably ever get from me."
Carol Barry, a visiting nurse who attended the gathering, said that, before SASH, some elderly residents were "falling through the cracks."
"It has been such an asset," Barry said. "The collaboration (among service providers and residents) has increased tremendously due to SASH. I hope we keep it for a long, long time."
Wendy Barnard likely would agree. Through SASH, the 12-year Melrose resident said she has gotten help with complex medical paperwork.
"The forms are getting more difficult," Barnard said. "Christine has been there for me, and now I don't have to ask a family member."
In addition to improvements in the lives of program participants, administrators say SASH also has provided financial benefits by reducing Medicare costs.
Hazzard distributed the results of a federally commissioned evaluation showing that "the SASH program reduced the rate of growth in total Medicare expenditures and expenditures for post-acute care."
The study showed that "savings begin to appear in the second year of operation" of a SASH program, and "the savings in year two more than pay for year one and all public resources invested in the program."
In Vermont, when compared to a control group not enrolled in SASH, the savings were $1,756 per person per year in total Medicare expenses.
"We haven't just saved a little bit of money. We've saved a lot of money," Hazzard said.
While Hazzard said the formation of new relationships is more important than the bottom line, Welch noted that the ability to prove that SASH has saved money is "important, because you've got to have an affordable, sustainable health-care system."
As the meeting ended, Welch added that "this has been very, very encouraging to me."