In 2012, the Commonweath Fund's scorecard on local area health named Santa Rosa as one of the best places to receive health care in the United States. That ranking was based on access, quality, costs and health outcomes, and it should be a point of pride for our community.

At the same time, though, it's important to remember that medical care is only one factor in achieving and maintaining good health.

In "The Blind Side," a recent study commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, four in five physicians surveyed said that unmet social needs are leading directly to worse health. And they stated that the problems created by unmet social needs are problems for everyone, not only for those in low-income communities. In 2009, an estimated 10 percent of Sonoma County's residents were living in poverty and 18 percent of were uninsured.

When people do not have enough to eat, live in decaying buildings or are unemployed, they are more likely to have poorer health and rely more on costly emergency care. Children in families that are experiencing hunger are far more likely to be hospitalized. These types of situations can contribute to higher health care costs for all of society.

Public assistance programs are designed to help people in need — including low- and middle-income wage-earners — achieve greater stability. Yet, many who are eligible for these programs don't apply.

One reason is that many are new to the world of public programs, because for the first time in their lives they are facing serious financial problems, including the reality of losing their homes and not having enough food to feed their families while they continue to look for work. They are not aware of the benefits available to them and have no experience with the application process.

Add to these circumstances the stigma associated with accepting "charity" and the result is that many people stay hungry and uninsured. In 2008, for example, only 67 percent of Americans received the food stamp benefits for which they qualified. In 2009, 7.5 million children in the United States went without health insurance even though many were eligible for programs such as Medi-Cal.

At a time when the cost, quality and availability of health care is a top priority for policymakers, care providers and the public health community, it is essential that we also work together to better understand how unmet social needs strain the overall health care system.

Since 2005, as a part of our commitment to total health, Kaiser Permanente has supported and worked closely with community organizations on a variety of access initiatives designed to prevent illness by helping people find and enroll in health insurance and assistance programs.

Some of the results these initiatives have yielded include: 1 million pounds of healthy food for people in need; more than 200,000 people newly enrolled in subsidized programs including Kaiser Permanente's Child Health Plan and Medi-Cal; and 250,000 people maintaining their health coverage through subsidized programs — including many who had lost their employer-based coverage.

To continue this work, Kaiser Permanente recently provided $660,000 in grants to community clinics across Northern California to increase their ability to connect patients to important community and public resources. The Petaluma Health Center received one of these grants and will use it to offer a drop-in resource clinic and train clinic staff to enroll patients in public benefit programs and make referrals to a wide range of community-based organizations.

We all pay the price of treating illness, and connecting people with health and social services is one important step on the path to restoring the health and well-being of our community, our county and our state.

Judy Coffey is senior vice president and area manager for Marin-Sonoma with Kaiser-Permanente.