Outreach breaks barriers

A program in Cedar-Riverside has helped many neighborhood residents get health insurance.

Elizabeth Smith

Mohamed Farah used to only go to the hospital for emergencies, and he said if he was feeling ill, he would “suck it up.”

Because until last week, he didn’t have health insurance.

But thanks to a MNsure outreach program in Cedar-Riverside, Farah is one of about 1,000 East Africans in Minneapolis who have enrolled in the Minnesota health insurance exchange.

The program, Somali Health Solutions, breaks down language and cultural barriers that stand between some Cedar-Riverside residents and health insurance.

This year, the program expanded its outreach to include people who speak the East African languages Oromo and Amharic, said Hodan Guled, director of business development for the organizations.

The open enrollment period for 2015 coverage ended on Monday and began in November.

Guled said the enrollment period only affected about 10 percent of Cedar-Riverside residents, and the rest of the area’s residents likely qualify for public plans, like Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, and they can enroll at any time.

“They can really sign up the entire year, and that’s not information they have available to them,” she said. “So when they hear there are enrollments going on or that the deadline is Feb. 15, then everyone just comes rushing.”

This is Somali Health Solutions’ second year as one of MNsure’s nearly 30 outreach partners.

Guled said the office enrolled 10 to more than 20 people every day in January and is on the same pace this month.

She said she hopes to register 2,000 to 3,000 more people throughout the year.

“Just imagine someone who has never really heard of what insurance is having to navigate through the system. And not just navigating,” Guled said, “but having to really understand what a premium is, what a deductible is.”

Recent University of Minnesota graduate Abdimalik Ahmed works for Somali Health Solutions in preparation for medical school in the fall.

Ahmed said he usually has to explain what health insurance is to customers before he begins to enroll them.

“Once I get them to that point,” Ahmed said. “Then they have the same questions that everyone else has, like, ‘What is the difference between MNsure and ObamaCare?’”

Representatives from Somali Health Solutions set up stands twice a week in Somali malls, mosques and other gathering places to enroll people for health coverage on-site.

That type of outreach is successful because many people the organization serves don’t have their own means of transportation, Guled said.

She said the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is one that has been historically difficult to connect with insurance.

“Before, they would get sick, wait and go to the emergency room and, it would just be treatment-based,” Guled said, “whereas now they can go in and get preventative care.”

This year, Farah said he will be prepared if he falls ill — which, he said, is a rare occurrence.

“This time I’ll be ready,” he said. “I will be ready to see a doctor.”