New York’s Backstretches Leading Healthcare Initiatives

The glamour of the front side of a New York racetrack can often stray your mind from the thousands of backstretch employees who work seven days a week caring for all the superstars you see on the racetrack. The Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST) focuses all their energy on supporting the health and well-being of the New York backstretch employees, including free health care clinics, health insurance, and drug and alcohol abuse counseling.

“Prevention is key,” said Paul Ruchames, Executive Director of BEST, about the BEST’s mission. Individualized needs of the backstretch workers are the top priority, and it is clear the program is utilized as over 4,200 visits are made to their on-site health care clinics (at Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park) each year. The clinic at Belmont Park is open year-around, five days a week, with hours to accommodate the workers’ schedules, while the clinic at Saratoga Race Course (contracted through Saratoga Hospital) is open seven months out of the year around the Saratoga race meet. Both clinics provide primary health care services free of charge and are headed by an on-site doctor and RNs. Workers are also able to seek chiropractic and podiatric care at the Belmont Clinic. The 2013 TCA grant BEST received will be used to launch an acupuncture program at the Belmont clinic in September. One of BEST’s goals is to offer more holistic healthcare options including acupuncture and non-chemical methods of treatment.

Although prevention is key, Ruchames sites one of the greatest examples of BEST success was a worker who suffered from brain cancer and needed a $30,000 medication. Fortunately, BEST was able to cover this man’s medication, and he survived his life-threatening illness.

BEST offers no-cost health insurance to 600 backstretch workers (up 20% from 2011). A participant must show four pay-stubs (or two at Saratoga) to qualify for the program. The insurance provides specialty medical care, diagnostic imaging, prescription drug coverage, hospital and emergency medical coverage.

When BEST initiated in 1989 (originally called Backstretch Employee Assistance Team – BEAT), the focus was only drug and alcohol abuse services before BEST expanded to include health care in 2005. Drug and alcohol counseling is still a large part of the BEST services and they provide free on-site bi-lingual counseling as well as offering AA and NA meetings five days a week.

Looking toward the future, Ruchames said he would like to provide more recreational opportunities for workers. Currently, they assist with the Backstretch Café and Backstretch Bistro which are coffee shop like atmospheres (free of alcohol) providing free food, coffee, music and a place to relax on the backstretch. Another goal is adapting the BEST program to work with the Affordable Care Act. With constantly evolving and innovative programs, BEST is sure to improve backstretch health care for years to come.