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Summer Swim Rx: A Community Success Story

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

What’s one way to get your kid physically active in the summertime? Getting a “pool prescription” from the doctor’s office.

In 2018, several local organizations including North Central Public Health District, OSU Extension, North Wasco Aquatic Center and Hood River Aquatic Center got together and dreamt up an innovative way to improve public pool access for families on the Oregon Health Plan.* Several months later, Summer Swim Rx (SSRx) was born.

Initially funded by a grant from the Columbia Gorge Health Council, SSRx reached nearly 200 families over the last two years.** The idea was twofold: to create equitable access to physical activity opportunities in the community and to address the high rates of childhood obesity in Wasco and Hood River Counties.

A busy night at the Northern Wasco County Aquatic Center. Photo credit: NWCPRD

More often than not, you need to have money to be able to access recreational opportunities: school sports and dance classes are not free. And especially in rural areas, opportunities for kids to play and exercise can be very limited. Childhood obesity is a concern for families in the Gorge, and as we know, the two biggest factors are unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle.

Over the last five years, Dr. Miriam McDonell, Health Officer at North Central Public Health District (NCPHD), and her Health Promotion team have been measuring the body mass index (BMI) of elementary-aged students in Wasco and Hood River Counties. Most recently, Dr. McDonell found a 22% rate of obesity in Wasco County elementary-aged students and a 19% rate in Hood River County. While exercise is important at any weight, kids at higher weights especially need judgment-free spaces to be physically active. In large part, Summer Swim Rx was born from this need, and the knowledge that improved access to recreational opportunities can help get kids moving.

In 2018, Summer Swim Rx worked like this: medical and dental providers gave all children covered by PacificSource a physical activity screen. If the child screened “positive” for physical inactivity, providers prescribed a steeply discounted summer swim pass to the whole family. The family could then use the pass all summer at the pools in Hood River or The Dalles.

“Families appreciated the Summer Swim Rx vouchers so much, we knew we had to find a way to make it survive without relying on grant funding,” said Scott Baker, Executive Director of Northern Wasco County Parks & Recreation. “ Working with PacificSource and the NCPHD, we were able to develop an ongoing agreement that allows their clients to be referred for a no-cost pool pass.”

So this year, the program’s model changed slightly: medical providers now send a referral for “Active Rx” to Kristen Slatt, Community Health Specialist at North Central Public Health District (NCPHD). Kristen then puts in a request for flex funds from PacificSource, the Medicaid insurer for the region. PacificSource then approves the request, and issues a swim pass in the mail. And, swim lessons were added to the program this year for kids who qualify.

Just within a year, redemption rates of swim passes have more than doubled. The number of passes redeemed in Wasco County increased from 44 to 89, and the number jumped from 10 to 51 in Hood River County. This likely happened because more people were aware of the program, and also because NCPHD put in the time to call referred clients and remind them of their prescription.

According to Kristen, a major benefit to providers administering this referral is that families have an incentive to see their doctors when their kids are well. This means that families are more likely to be using preventive medicine, and talking with providers about lifestyle and diet as opposed to just visiting the doctor when their kids are sick. Plus, the program allows families to obtain a swim pass who otherwise may have not been able to purchase one (a family swim pass can cost up to $200 for a season).

"We strive to make our community pool welcoming and accessible to everyone,” said Scott. “Cost can be a barrier, and Summer SwimRx lowered that cost substantially.  Over a hundred families were able to swim this summer who may not have been able to afford it without Summer Swim Rx.”

One happy parent wrote, “I liked that [Summer Swim Rx] was available. My kids always wanted to go but we could never afford it before this. It’s the greatest thing ever.” Another parent mentioned that it was the “greatest prescription we could have received”.

*Summer Swim Rx thus far has been available to families covered by PacificSource Community Solutions, the Medicaid insurer in the Columbia Gorge. Ten percent of OHP members are not covered by PacificSource and therefore not eligible for the program. However, the Columbia Gorge Health Council has provided further funding for 2020 so that families not covered by PacificSource who have a financial need may access the same benefit.

**The SSRx is funded as a result of CCO Quality Performance by clinicians in the region and supported by the Clinical Advisory Panel for the Columbia Gorge CCO.

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