Health Equity
Health Access

"How I'm Building" with Abner Mason of SameSky Health

by Marjorie Alford

Abner Mason, Founder and CEO of SameSky Health, talks with Onboard Health about the ever changing field of health equity spanning his decades in the field.

As healthcare is projected to account for a third of new employment in the next decade, we have the opportunity to build health into our society with new models of care and access; address the social determinants of health head-on; and revolutionize chronic disease and mental health.

Accomplishing all of this, however, calls for inclusion of varied viewpoints and lived experiences in problem solving and decision-making. This is how Onboard Health views sustainable health innovation — through the inclusion of change-makers from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Onboard Health’s blog is dedicated to giving a voice to these talented individuals hard at work creating lasting change in our society. This post, featuring Abner Mason is the thirteenth of a Q&A series — “How I’m Building” — highlighting members of the diverse Onboard Health community.

You have been working to reduce barriers to care for DECADES. How did you know this was your calling?

I was in college when HIV/AIDS first struck. I saw firsthand how healthcare’s unwillingness to accept LGBTQIA+ people led to less access, less care, and more suffering, more death. I also found my chance to start fighting back, and I took it.

By the time George W. Bush became president, I had made a name for myself in the HIV/AIDS activism world. He appointed me to chair a subcommittee that he formed to reduce the global effects of HIV/AIDS. Our goal was to assist underserved communities as they struggled to survive the epidemic. At the same time, I served as head of the AIDS Responsibility Project. These roles sent me all over the world — from the Ugandan bush to Capitol Hill — on a mission to increase health equity.

I traveled to remote villages, where health workers rode motorcycles as they delivered lifesaving antiretroviral drugs to rural families. I visited clinics that were too under-resourced to handle daily patient encounters, never mind a public health disaster. I stayed in communities without electricity, running water, or roads.

And then I saw that all change in 2003, when Congress passed the Global AIDS Act. To combat the disease, the law unlocked billions of dollars for healthcare services and infrastructure in developing nations. And what happened? By early 2021, PEPFAR, the organization established through the act, had saved 20 million lives.

Suddenly, health equity didn’t feel all that unattainable. I learned that progress required changing hearts and minds — and the tireless efforts of many, many passionate people.

You are the founder and CEO of SameSky Health, a cultural experience company. What led you to found such a revolutionary company?

About 10 years after I helped get the Global AIDS Act through Congress, I was feeling restless. I was proud of the work that I had done to advance health equity around the world, but it was obvious that the U.S. — my home — had huge issues of its own.

I saw major challenges with how the healthcare industry treats everyone — the same — through a one-size-fits-all approach. Unlike other industries (i.e., retail and banking), healthcare has not evolved to create a personalized approach for individuals. Who people are as individuals matters.

In addition, the healthcare industry has faced several regulatory and payment barriers as it has tried to transform to digital healthcare — from reimbursement challenges for telehealth visits to outdated regulations such as the telephone consumer protection act, which prohibits health plans from texting their members.

My entire experience to drive change and pass the Global AIDS Act transformed my expectations about what type of healthcare system we should have in the U.S. I saw what we were able to accomplish in one of the poorest countries in the world. We built a system and delivered a complicated therapy to address AIDS. This put me on a course to explore how to make our healthcare system work for everyone and take action. 

SameSky Health was formerly known as ConsejoSano, what brought about the name change?

We began as a small but ambitious startup dedicated to reaching Spanish speakers for telehealth appointments. My team and I ran on passion, and we worked hard for people from underserved communities. 

Now, 7 years later, SameSky Health is a lot different. We’re not a telehealth company anymore — we perform health equity-focused engagement, primarily on behalf of health plans with Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and Exchange lines of business. We don’t limit our work to Spanish speakers — we have the cultural expertise to reach out to people who speak more than 25 different languages. And I wouldn’t consider us “small” these days — our team numbers more than 100 people.

Our decision to rebrand ConsejoSano to SameSky Health is reflective of the broader communities we serve. We all live under the same sky, we’re in this together. We all deserve equitable access to healthcare and deserve the opportunity to enjoy the best possible health and wellness. We were looking for a name that connected with our values as a company.

We have the ability now, to make a meaningful difference in the way we engage each person in their healthcare – that’s what we’re doing at SameSky Health.

You are also the founder of HealthTech 4 Medicaid, a nonprofit composed of innovative leaders working to radically change the pace of innovation to improve care quality and access. How did you recognize the need for this organization?

The Medicaid program was in desperate need of innovation. Most of the innovation happening at the time in healthcare was focused on the commercial and Medicare Advantage lines of business. I wanted to drive innovation to help traditionally underserved communities in the U.S. However, through my experience, I quickly learned how hard it was to gain traction and investment to innovate in this space. It was also challenging because Medicaid, unlike other programs, is a state-led program. 

I figured other innovators who were trying to drive meaningful change in this space, were running into similar challenges. I thought if we could share best practices and learnings on what works and doesn’t, we could support each other. So that’s what I set out to do with HealthTech4 Medicaid. I created a robust meaningful non-profit.

Where do you draw inspiration?

I draw my inspiration from both the need and opportunity to drive innovation in healthcare as well as to find better solutions to make the system work better for everyone. There has never been a more exciting time in healthcare, in terms of technologies that can be combined to address the challenges we face. 

As summer comes to a close, tell us your favorite way to spend the warm months?

One of my favorite things to do in the summer months in Los Angeles is to take long walks during the evenings.

Doing such important work makes it easy to burn out. What do you do to keep yourself centered?

I keep myself centered by continually focusing on how fortunate I am to work on solving problems in healthcare. I love the work I get to do.

As someone with such a long-standing career in the field, what are your hopes for the health equity landscape in the next five years? And ten?

In the next five years, I hope to see the early days of true systemic change from Federal regulation down to exam room protocols – everyone doing what they can to build a more equitable healthcare system.

I hope to see significant regulatory change at the Federal and State level, enabling healthcare organizations such as health plans to more easily reach and engage with their members.

For example, to more effectively reach members and address health equity, a multi-channel engagement approach is necessary. Flexible, and inclusive means to reach members where they are, using familiar and comfortable electronic tools to communicate in a timely, respectful, and private manner.

This is a key component of the continued goal of health equity. As the Public Health Emergency is beginning to unwind, health plans are asking SameSky Health to help them contact their Medicaid members to update contact information as well as to help guide them through the redetermination process.

Member engagement involves the use of multi-channel electronic communications (live calls, text messages, and email) designed to engage and involve members in specific aspects of their health. These communications are not telemarketing or advertising as defined under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (“HIPAA”),  nor under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act as clarified by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”)  or the Telemarketing Sales Rule as established by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).  

However, FCC TCPA rulings issued between 2015 and 2021 have created apprehension among health plans as to how to lawfully engage with members. We need to change old regulations that are not relevant to the environment and societal norms of today.             

All of that said, I’m encouraged by the recent quality measures NCQA released for health plans related to health equity. The decision to incentivize health plans to stratify data by race and ethnicity deserves to go down in the history books. This quality measure opens a tremendous opportunity to identify and address inequities in care. NCQA’s updates to language to acknowledge and affirm members’ gender identities is another outstanding step toward building an inclusive, culturally tailored healthcare system. A new quality measure for social need screening and intervention, meanwhile, promises to ensure health plans are in a better position to address SDOH.

In less than 10 years, I hope healthcare becomes personalized as so many other industries have advanced to a very individualized, tailored experience for people based on their behaviors, likes, dislikes, personal preferences, and other factors (Ex: entertainment, retail, etc). 

What does Onboard Health’s mission — “building an inclusive health workforce” — mean to you?

To me, Onboard Health’s mission means taking advantage of a major strength the U.S. has – a very diverse population. Diversity is important because everyone has different gifts, talents, and abilities. It’s important to figure out a way to help position people to best contribute and grow their skills and experiences to be able to blossom. 

The diversity of our leadership presents a great opportunity for our country –giving people a chance to live their best lives. Old, outdated biases and ineffective beliefs prevent us from tapping into and recognizing our full potential. Onboard Health is helping employers across the country strengthen and develop inclusive workforces, which is better for everyone.

Where can the Onboard Health Community connect with you online?

Connect with me on Twitter: @abnermason

Connect with me on LinkedIn: Abner Mason 

Abner Mason is the founder and CEO of SameSky Health, a cultural experience company that forms

meaningful relationships to bring people to health. He has spent decades working to reduce barriers to

care faced by underserved people nationally and internationally, from the federal to the local level. He

currently sits on the Boards of Manifest MedEx and the California Black Health Network, and is a

member of United States of Care’s Founders Council, the American Medical Association’s External Equity

and Innovation Advisory Group, the HIMSS’ Social Determinants of Health Committee and the Medicaid

Innovation Collaborative’s advisory board. Abner is the founder of HealthTech 4 Medicaid.