PRESENTER SPOTLIGHT: 2019 NATIONAL SUMMIT

Sarah L. Lechner, ESQ., Senior Vice President, Policy Development and Government Affairs, RWJBarnabas Health

Our Presenter Spotlight Series highlights the dozens of leaders in the movement to build health equity who will present their ideas at the 2019 National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in San Diego, Calif. Register now to reserve your place at the Summit!

Sarah L. Lechner, Esq., is Senior Vice President of Policy Development and Government Affairs at RWJBarnabas Health, the most comprehensive academic health care system in New Jersey, with a service area of nine counties and five million residents. The system includes eleven acute care hospitals, three acute care children’s hospitals and a leading pediatric rehabilitation hospital, a freestanding 100-bed behavioral health center, ambulatory care centers, geriatric centers, the state’s largest behavioral health network, comprehensive home care and hospice programs, fitness and wellness centers, retail pharmacy services, a medical group, multi-site imaging centers and four accountable care organizations.

RWJBarnabas Health launched a Social Impact and Community Investment practice in 2017, which uses a collective impact model to building communities’ whole health.  The system has co-created a wide spectrum of initiatives aimed at eliminating health care disparities and addressing social determinants of health.  Facilities within the system are each anchor institutions and critical economic engines in their communities and, as such, have focused on local hiring, buying and investing practices.  Ms. Lechner serves as Chief of Staff to this practice and also leads its policy arm.

Ms. Lechner started her career practicing law in Roseland and went on to serve as assistant and deputy counsel for the Senate Democratic Office in the New Jersey Legislature under Senate Presidents Richard J. Codey and Stephen M. Sweeney.  There, she specialized in legislative and policy issues concerning insurance, notably health insurance, as well as regulated professions.  She has also served as General Counsel for the New Jersey Hospital Association, where she was responsible for the daily legal oversight of the organization and its affiliated and subsidiary entities and for assisting both acute and post-acute facilities understand and implement changes pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as well as guiding various health care providers into the managed care model, under the State’s comprehensive Medicaid waiver approved by the federal government.

Ms. Lechner is a frequent speaker on health care issues.  She received her law degree from Rutgers – Newark School of Law and a bachelor’s degree from The George Washington University.

What does it take to be an effective leader in this field?

My leadership philosophy is one of servant leadership – that my primary focus is the growth and well-being of the Social Impact team and the communities to which our system belongs.  All too often, health care leaders have determined not only the cure but the cause – and focused almost exclusively on the disease and not the individual.  I believe that it is more effective to listen, to work alongside and to commit to the growth of people and communities.

What are some major takeaways that you want others to learn about YOU and the work that you do? In what areas have you made the most impact, what have you learned and what has motivated you to continue work in this field?

Vulnerable communities are at greater risk for medical conditions and disease, due to social determinants such as poor housing and transportation, lack of healthy, affordable food, unsafe streets, unemployment, and a lack of educational opportunities. To address these, RWJBarnabas Health launched a Social Impact and Community Investment (SICI) practice, to improve the health of all New Jerseyans by strategically working to foster health-promoting environments and conditions across the key social determinants of health.

I serve as the Chief of Staff to the SICI practice and also leads its policy arm.  This practice is unique nationally in that it is led by the policy arm – this means that we believe in order to truly improve the health of our communities, we need to pursue changes to the systems and structures that have created – whether intentionally or unintentionally – these inequities.

I am driven every day to work with communities to collectively co-design policy solutions that build upon the innovative initiatives being developed in order to ensure generational change.

Highlights:

  • Each year, nearly 800,000 people receive SNAP benefits statewide, however, having access to fresh produce is challenging for many in areas where grocery stores and fresh markets are rare, also known as “food deserts.” Processed, sugar and fat-laden foods are known contributors to a nationwide obesity epidemic. While not always connected, many people may be overweight or obese and still suffer from hunger and malnutrition due to poor food choices available and affordable. One out of three children become overweight or obese before their 5th birthday, and annually, the U.S. spends nearly $1.5 trillion on direct and indirect costs associated with obesity.
  • In 2017, I spearheaded a team which secured the authorization for Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas facility, as the first and only hospital-based Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vendor in the state.
  • In October 2017 Newark Beth Israel Medical Center‘s Beth Greenhouse, which is a hydroponic farm and Farmers Market, began accepting NJ SNAP sales, allowing low-income families to buy its fresh, locally grown organic vegetables, fruits and herbs with their Electronic Benefit cards. Proceeds from sales are reinvested in programming for health and wellness activities in the local community.
  • Our team is continuing in efforts to make healthy food available to low-income New Jerseyans while supporting urban growing through policy initiatives. Recently, the state Department of Health revised its rules to permit growers producing less than five acres to qualify as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a federal assistance program of the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA) vendors. Previously, WIC benefits could only be used to purchase from farmers that had more than five acres in production. Through education and advocacy, I worked with local growers, the state and federal government to change this requirement, which became effective for the 2019 growing season and will increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for women, infants and children statewide.