To mitigate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities, the Biden administration created a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force — and recruited G. Robert “Bobby” Watts ’81, a health administrator and epidemiologist.
“I have seen that we cannot have high-quality health services or a public health response without equity,” Watts said in a press release for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Quality care for some is not ‘public’ health.”
The biology and society alumnus has spent decades unraveling the health disparities that afflict the homeless. At the start of his career, Watts spent 21 years putting forth initiatives to safeguard homeless people under Medicaid in New York City at Care for the Homeless, and later transitioned to the National Health Care for the Homelessness Council.
In his newly appointed position, Watts is charged with issuing recommendations for equitable distribution of COVID-19 resources and relief funding, as well as creating effective outreach strategies to marginalized communities and investigating the drivers behind COVID-19 health disparities.
The task force comes at a critical point when people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — the brutal winter cold, coupled with overcrowded shelters, limited access to warm public spaces and an increase in the number of people in need of homeless services has created conditions that increase risk of infection.
As part of the task force Watts will build on his current work as the CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which oversees 300 federally qualified health centers — community-based health care providers in underserved areas funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
As NHCHC CEO, Watts monitors the development of state and local policies dedicated to the health needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.
According to Watts, the objective of the NHCHC is to serve as a hub for information regarding best practices to address homelessness and better care for that population.
“We really believe that if we are to solve the health needs of people experiencing homelessness, and if we are going to solve homelessness, we have to listen to those that are most affected by it,” Watts said in an interview for podcast The Healthcare Policy in October 2019.
To implement health care solutions for those experiencing homelessness, NHCHC works to provide short-term housing to individuals experiencing homelessness who are discharged from hospitals through the efforts of the National Institute for Medical Respite Care, an extension of the NHCHC.
According to the NHCHC, medical respite care allows those experiencing homelessness to recover from physical injury or illness in a safe environment and access medical and supportive services. Watts said people experiencing homelessness often return to the streets once they no longer have a clinical reason to be in the hospital, which can exacerbate their health conditions.
“Medical respite is stepping in to break that cycle and give them a safe place to recover. And then hopefully, that can lead to housing,” Watts said in the podcast.
Prior to his work with the NHCHC, Watts also advised the U.S. Public Health Service’s Bureau of Primary Health Care Data Workgroup, where he gained experience in molding recommendations to serve the homeless.
Watts developed his passion for the fight against homelessness as a member of the New York City Rescue Mission in Manhattan in 1994, the oldest shelter in the United States.
“By ensuring that vulnerable populations are served well, we make our nation’s health better for everyone,” Watts said.