When a letter came telling Monica Spisak that she was approved for the Oregon Health Plan, she at first ignored it. “I didn’t respond to it because I was afraid I would have to go to a different clinic,” said Spisak, who has received free treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure at North by Northeast Community Health Center since 2007. “This place is a miracle. This is like family here.”
Even letters containing good news can be confusing, especially with the many changes occurring in health care nationwide. Without help from an organization she trusts, Spisak (pictured above with North by Northeast’s Program Assistant Danielle Tucker) said she would have continued to ignore the letter and missed out on the chance to get health insurance for the first time in years.
Health care reform supporters, the Obama administration and states like Oregon face significant challenges reaching the millions of people who will use the new health insurance exchanges and who may qualify for Medicaid coverage or tax credits for private health insurance. Opinion polls show little public understanding of how the Affordable Care Act works, especially among the poor and uninsured who stand to gain the most. Neighborhood clinics like North by Northeast are now taking on a new role: making sure people get enrolled in coverage. North by Northeast staff and volunteers have already started reaching out to 800 current patients to inform them about the coming changes.
“We will be working with our partner organizations to reach more people in the local community,” said Dr. Jill Ginsberg, North by Northeast’s Medical Director. “Our priority has always been on improving the health of African Americans, who historically have been poorly served by the healthcare system. For a lot of people, a letter from DHS is not assumed to contain good news. Because of the trust we have built with our patients, we can help them take advantage of this opportunity to get enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan, where they will not only have access to primary health services but dental services as well. Many of our patients, and others in the neighborhood, have not had any health coverage for years or even decades. This is a life-changing opportunity.”
North by Northeast Community Health Center was founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, when Pastor Mary Overstreet Smith of the Powerhouse Temple Church of God in Christ in North Portland met Dr. Jill Ginsberg, then a family medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente. Pastor Mary enlisted Dr. Ginsberg’s help to start a clinic that had evening hours and would be an alternative to the emergency room for uninsured people who needed basic care for diabetes and high blood pressure. Since then, the health center has become a trusted resource in the community. Volunteer medical professionals, community members, local businesses and healthcare providers have come together with donations of time, services and funds to allow the health center and its patients to thrive.