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Investing in Time Banks: More than Just Feel-Good Potential

Posted Oct 31 2011 11:33pm

alarm_clocks_20101105 What distinguishes the time bank concept from established volunteer service organizations? Not much, really, since time banks over 300 total in existence within 23 countries– allow individuals to join and indicate what service they would like to provide : ranging from home repairs, child care, visiting the incapacitated, and accompanying patients to the doctor. Anti-poverty activist Edgar Cahn, is often viewed as somewhat of a time bank pioneer; he wrote about the concept early, and has attributed the rise in time banks to the cuts in social programs during the Reagan years. The currency of time banks is, not surprisingly, measured in hours rather than dollars, and members may accumulate credits and use them on those services offered by other time bank members. The barter/exchange system is seemingly win-win, since individuals are able to provide services they feel comfortable providing, and may receive like-time in services they want. With time banks, all work is equally valued– as such, it is said to be deemed non-taxable barter.

While the social benefits and altruistic aspects of time banks can be clearly inferred, the health payoffs may not be as explicitly recognizable but are seemingly also present– perhaps evidenced by just how many time banks are sponsored by healthcare providers. According to the New York Times, “The largest one in New York City is the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Community Connections TimeBank .” Also according to the Times:

Elderplan, a New York health insurance company, also runs a time bank for members.   Hospitals such as the Lehigh Valley Health Network, based in Allentown, Pa., run time banks.  In Britain, even private medical practices have established time banks.  At Rushey Green Group Practice in London, Dr. Richard Byng was convinced that what many of his patients needed wasn’t medication, but friends, social connections and a way to feel useful and valued.  Now doctors there routinely prescribe that patients join the Rushey Green Time Bank .

Importantly, time banks often provide simple practical aid that may not be directly medical-related and might not be covered by Medicaid or Medicare: an elderly woman, for instance,  who was just released from the hospital but is still too frail to purchase her own groceries or get to a follow-up appointment receives these services. These not directly medical challenges, if not navigated, can easily land such patients right back in the hospital. Importantly, re-hospitalizations are monetarily disincentivized through Medicare and Medicaid. As such, hospitals are seemingly incentivized to facilitate such simple ancillary care which can decrease the recurrence of re-hospitalizations and the lack of reimbursement for repeat hospital stays. Time banks may be one way to offer those solutions for many.

Time banks have been shown to make people feel better and improve members’ health– in particular, they have shown benefit for those with  low-incomes and living alone. They are also, at least anecdotally, economically beneficial; but in order for more health care organizations and providers to actually invest in time banking efforts, quantitative data showing proven cuts in the cost of health care resulting from time bank initiatives is seemingly needed. But there is some. A briefing published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) provided the following:

  • Volunteer Caregiving in Richmond, Virginia, where asthmatics are enrolled in a telephone time bank and befriend other asthmatics: the experiment cut the cost of treating those involved by 73 per cent a total of $80,000 saved in the first year of the asthma program, rising to $137,500 in the second year.

The Times also reports that

UK studies provide more evidence. In Britain, the Nu Social Health Organization ( NUSHO ) found a cost savings of £250,000 within its first year. An economic model by the London School of Economics (LSE) concluded that the cost of each time bank member would average £450 per year, but the economic value of each member’s contributions would exceed £1,300.

The relative lack of published quantitative evidence on the projected savings that time banks will create may have something to do with them not being yet widespread. But with the urgency our nation faces to cut health care costs, there is, seemingly, great potential in time banks. But as the Times writer noted, the evaluations of time banking perhaps need to focus more on monetary value outcomes so that the case for the economic impact of time banks can be more convincingly made.  With this kind of information, if available, perhaps a push can be made and the potential of time banks can be effectuated.

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