Pefok is one of many faith and community leaders that the federal Department of Health and Human Services is targeting through a partnership with the Cameroon American Council. Sylvie Bello, a Cameroonian immigrant who heads up the council, approached the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about a year ago. If she identified African events in the area, she wanted to know, would CMS send officials to teach community leaders about the law and other federal health assistance that might be available to legal immigrants?
First program of its kind
In the past, CMS has worked with the Urban League, the NAACP and other African American groups to get eligible people signed up for public health insurance programs. But this is the first time it is reaching out to immigrants, said Melissa Herd, who does much of the training for CMS.
The goal of the partnership is to arm community leaders with accurate information about Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program “that they can take back to the communities they serve,” Herd said.
As part of the initiative, Herd attended a July health fair at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville, where hundreds of transplanted Africans rolled up their sleeves for blood tests, consulted with nutritionists and collected freebies from a Walgreens representative. Herd explained the law to a group of physicians, nurses and other community leaders who also attended.
Among Herd’s lessons: The law requires states to make Medicaid available to all people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $31,000 for a family of four) beginning in 2014. Some states will reach this threshold earlier. That includes coverage for a large portion of childless adults who previously did not qualify.
Illegal immigrants still aren’t eligible for Medicaid, but, since 1996, legal immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years are eligible. In addition, starting in April 2009, states have had the option of lifting the five-year residency requirement for pregnant women and children.
Legal immigrants who haven’t reached the five-year mark still may qualify for income-based premium credits to help them purchase private insurance through state exchanges that will be up and running in 2014. Most people will be required to buy insurance starting that year.
At the same time, Herd explained that people who have had two years of disability or end-stage renal disease qualify for Medicare, the federal program that mainly serves seniors. “It was an eye-opener for a couple of health-care providers here to find out that people younger than 65 can be on Medicare,” she said.