This Startup Is Using The Many Hours Low-Income Americans Spend In Laundromats To Improve Access To Healthcare

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Allister Chang and Courtney Bragg both confess to a shared obsession: the time many Americans spend waiting in laundromats for their laundry to be done. To be more specific, according to Chang, 32 million mostly lower-income Americans devote two hours every week to that task. “This is invaluable time during which we can improve health and well-being for these busy families,” says Chang.

Courtney Bragg and Allister Chang

Corey Hart

With that in mind, last spring they launched a startup called Fabric Health aimed at helping low-income people receive improved access to healthcare while spending time in laundromats. Thus, Fabric Health staff, in effect, embed themselves in these venues, slowly becoming trusted advisors who, through digital services and face-to-face interaction, can show families how to get better health services.

“People are busy, but everyone needs clean underwear,” says Bragg. “And we need to build systems and services that fit their lives, instead of asking them to squeeze something else in.”

The business model involves working with insurers to update contact information, enroll new members and make sure people are using the right level of care, understand their benefits and tap programs they might not otherwise have known existed. “The insight is really simple,” says Chang. “We’re treating these families like people by meeting them where they are.”

The underlying idea is the unique function laundromats serve. “Laundromats are de facto community centers,” says Bragg. They also serve a lot of people. One laundromat in West Philadelphia participating in the company’s program draws 3,400 families a month to its 7,000 square foot venue.

How It Works

First, Fabric Health sets up shop in a laundromat. To start building relationships, company reps don’t run up to laundromat patrons, asking them about their insurance coverage. Instead they move slowly by doing simple things like opening the door and assisting someone struggling with three bags of laundry and several children in tow. Then over time, they’ll find out what families need and help them address those issues. That means anything from enrolling them in a health insurance plan or making sure their insurer has up-to-date contact information to scheduling a free mammogram or head and neck cancer screening provided on-site by Jefferson Health Clinic. (Over 50% of users are Medicaid and Medicare members).

Jefferson Health Clinic medical professionals provide free head and neck cancer screenings for … [+] Fabric Health in a Philadelphia laundromat.

Corey Hart

Ultimately, the services they provide end up helping both the consumer and the insurer. Consider a retired police officer. Not long ago, after getting to know Bragg and Chang over a period of several months, she contacted them in a panic when she realized she couldn’t afford her diabetes medication for the rest of the year. With that, the partners introduced her to a local nonprofit able to help her pay for the medication she needed immediately. Then they connected her to her insurance company, which had programs she hadn’t known about that helped people in similar straits.

Clearly, that helped the former officer to get the medicine she desperately needed. But, the insurance company benefitted, too, since the alternative would be running the risk the woman would wind up sicker and in the emergency room, a much more costly proposition.

A Cosmic Introduction

Bragg became more and more aware of the potential in reaching low-income consumers via laundromats while working with a mobile dental healthcare startup. As for Chan, his epiphany came while working with urban public libraries, helping them determine how to improve the retention rate for multi-session programs. After Chang suggested they try using local laundromats, program completion rates soared. “I realized how important it was to take the matter of time scarcity into account when building programs for low-income people,” he says. “A scarce resource for everyone is time, but particularly if you’re living in poverty in the U.S.”

Then, in January 2020, a mutual friend who was aware of their shared interest suggested they meet in what Bragg describes as “a cosmic introduction.” Last spring, they launched Fabric Health. They also spent many months talking to laundromat users, as well as healthcare companies, to pinpoint how they could best approach the market, and refine their hypothesis that insurers would be the best companies to work with.

They decided to launch their first effort in Philadelphia, thanks to its active managed care market and surfeit of economic disparity, partnering with Pennie, Pennsylvania’s state-based health and dental insurance marketplace. In Philly, they teamed up with an operator of five laundromats and launched their services in September.

Since then, they’ve focused on validating their assumptions. Also in January, they won a $500,000 convertible note from the Richard King Mellon Foundation after winning its social impact pitch competition. Plus they’ve raised “some investment capital,” says Bragg. They’re also expanding to Pittsburgh.

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