Berkshire initiative looks to UK programs linking arts and culture to public health

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PITTSFIELD — Finally able to access a new funding source, the Massachusetts Cultural Council plans to use that money in a new program that is based on the premise that arts and culture can be beneficial to public health.

The new initiative, called CultureRx, is expected to be rolled out at the beginning of the new year, according to MCC Executive Director Anita Walker. The program is based on programs in the United Kingdom that have provided a direct correlation between access to culture and public health.

"The U.K. has linked arts and culture to health and well-being and a decline in social isolation and its ramifications for years," Walker said. "In their research, people in large studies who participate in arts and culture are 60 percent healthier than those who don't.

"This program is an American adaptation of a program that's already in place in the U.K.," she said.

In a recent meeting with The Eagle's editorial board, Walker outlined the parameters of the new initiative, which is a partnership between the MCC and the Massachusetts Health Connector, which oversees the state's subsidized health insurance program.

It contains two segments: ConnectorCare Card to Culture, which allows cardholders with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level free or reduced-admission fees at state cultural institutions beginning in January; and an innovative new proposal called the Social Prescription Pilot Program, which involves medical professionals and cultural organizations.

Under the social prescription method, medical professionals will be able to write prescriptions for cultural experiences in the arts, sciences and humanities as a "treatment option" for patients who are identified as eligible for these experiences by community health centers.

"Any time a social prescription is written for a program at one of our cultural organizations, that prescription will be sent to us at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and we will reimburse the organization for the full cost of the work," Walker said.

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The reimbursement will come from funding that had been set aside for the MCC in the state gaming legislation that established Massachusetts' casinos in 2011. Under the expanded gaming law, 2 percent of the revenues collected from casinos were scheduled for the MCC's use, with three-fourths of that sum intended to help nonprofit and municipally owned performing arts centers subsidize fees paid to entertainers who might be affected by the operation of gaming facilities. That portion of the money will be used for the reimbursement costs.

A trust fund that allows the MCC to receive that pool of money was included in the fiscal 2019 final deficiency budget that Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law.

"It's been sitting over at the Gaming Commission since we've been trying to get the language issues addressed," said Walker, who estimates that this annual pool of money could reach $4 million, depending on "how everything is running."

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If this repayment system proves to be cost-effective, Walker said, the plan is to eventually find other entities to underwrite the repayments to the cultural institutions that will participate in CultureRx.

"We want to encourage other resources of underwriting to come from insurance companies," she said. "In other words, we want to demonstrate to insurance companies that they would have a benefit financially in thinking about underwriting arts and culture for their members.

"They'll pay for your gym membership; they'll discount your insurance premiums if you're a smoker," she said. "Research has already shown that arts and culture participation lowers their cost because it is what public health officials call a protective factor. It is a protective factor against the issues that lead to depression and anxiety."

To test the idea's effectiveness, two pilot social prescription programs are scheduled to start in Western Massachusetts in January, with one based in the Berkshires. The Berkshire program is a collaborative partnership among the Macony Pediatric Group of Great Barrington, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, and a group of local schools and cultural organizations "who have been working together to address wellness issues with their clientele beyond just prescribing a pill," Walker said.

"They've been thinking of everything from yoga to other activities, and now they are going to be putting arts into their toolkit."

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The other pilot program will be conducted with the Caring Health Center in Springfield.

The Berkshire-based pilot program, headed by representatives from Macony and Mary Berle, the former principal of the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington and now chief educator at the Rockwell museum, already has been in place for some time, said Donna Elmendorf, the director of therapeutic community program at the Austen Riggs Center. Riggs sees value in the social prescription model's approach, she said. Transitioning from principal, Berle has brought this initiative to the museum, which will be one of the pilot organizations.

"If you live in a community where there are wonderful facilities that are not for you, it can increase your sense of isolation and alter your sense of well-being," Elmendorf said. "On the other hand, if all of those resources are available to everyone ... it creates a deeper sense of belonging. A sense of belonging contributes to our well-being."

The ConnectorCare program is based on MCC's previous experience with the EBT CARD to Culture program that allows people involved with the Department of Transitional Assistance to use their electronic benefits cards to attend cultural events.

"In the two years that this has been available, that EBT card has been used 370,000 times to access the arts and culture," Walker said. "That gave me a lot of confidence moving on with this."

Berkshire cultural organizations that are participating in the ConnectorCare program include Barrington Stage Company; Berkshire Theatre Group; The Clark Art Institute; the Flying Cloud Institute; Hancock Shaker Village; Images Cinema and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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