Equitas Health social workers
Left to right: Jodi Startup, Veronica Stricklin, Precious Carter.

Ask a social worker why they do what they do, and the answer likely will be, “I want to make a difference.”

The social workers who serve as health advocates at Equitas Health Mansfield are no different. Each day, they work with people living with HIV, people who need resources, and people who have faced bias and discrimination in healthcare. These health advocates educate, problem solve, and challenge inequities.

National Social Work Month in March lifts up the work that they do every day. This year’s theme, Social Work Breaks Barriers, is key to the work of a health advocate at Equitas Health.

“We give clients the tools they need to navigate a complex healthcare system, stigma, discrimination, and other barriers,” said Veronica Stricklin, a health advocacy supervisor. She has worked as a health advocate case manager in Mansfield for eight years and now supervises non-medical health advocates and peer navigators in Canton.

Formerly known as AIDS Resource Center Ohio (ARC Ohio), Equitas Health has been a part of Mansfield since 2003. The Columbus-based, non-profit healthcare system serves people living with HIV/AIDS, the LGBTQ+ community, and others who have been left out of traditional healthcare. Equitas Health Mansfield serves 160 clients living in 10 counties, including Richland. Many of those clients are living with HIV.

“Our team works with people to build a care plan that fits their wellness goals and chronic disease management. We help people connect to care and stay in care,” said Jodi Startup, a health advocacy supervisor. She provides clinical and administrative oversight for the Mansfield team.

In addition to the health advocates, the team includes two housing advocates, a non-medical health advocate, a case aide, and a benefits navigator.

Health advocates connect clients to services, explain insurance, and provide medical case management. They advocate on behalf of their clients for equitable and lower-cost healthcare and support services. This includes helping clients access government-funded programs like the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA). These programs help pay for medication and housing.

“Access to medication and healthcare can be a matter of life and death for the people we serve,” said Precious Carter, a social worker and health advocate case manager.

It’s important to Carter and the other health advocates that Equitas Health clients get the medication and resources they need, that they understand the progression of HIV, and that they have what they need to keep their health stable.

“While many people think HIV/AIDS is no longer present, we continue to see new cases. This is not an ‘old’ disease, but very much relevant and still stigmatized,” said Carter.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, 453 people are living with HIV in the region that includes Mansfield, Canton, Akron, and Youngstown. In 2020, 17 people were newly diagnosed with the virus.

“It is still a global epidemic,” said Startup, who was drawn to social work and social justice in the 1990s. The stigma, isolation, and mistreatment people faced at that time influenced her decision to become a community educator. She wanted to help reduce the fear and stigma associated with the disease.

“We break down barriers by respecting the dignity and worth of each person, and by empowering and supporting our clients and each other to become our best selves,” said Startup, who has worked in the Mansfield office for 10 years.

“The work we do is powerful and meaningful, and it’s very rewarding,” added Carter.

The true rewards for these health advocates come with the positive health outcomes of their clients.

“Many find refuge in telling their stories and making a conscious effort to take charge of their lives and their health,” said Stricklin.

Health advocates at Equitas Health make sure that their clients have the resources to do just that.

Equitas Health Mansfield is located at 410 Park Ave. West, Suite 5, in Mansfield.

People can walk in or make an appointment by calling (419) 525-2437.

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