Reaching Out To City Uninsured

Health Teams Go To People On Their Stoops, At Markets

July 20, 2009|By Angela Bass | Angela Bass,angela.bass@baltsun.com

Baltimore City health officials say full health coverage is just an application away for nearly half of the city's 100,000 uninsured residents. But a surprising number of them are not applying.

"Many people just don't know about it," said Kathleen Westcoat, president and chief executive officer of Baltimore HealthCare Access Inc., a city health agency connecting eligible families, singles and kids to seven free or low-cost managed care plans housed under the Medicaid roof.

The agency enrolled 9,074 residents of its target 10,000 in one of its Medical Assistance for Families programs by the end of June, not counting those enrolled in its other programs, for which the agency said it does not have figures.

Because of the recession, the agency can't always afford the kind of advertising it needs to attract more applicants. Using grant money, agency officials adopted an aggressive ad campaign, with an eye toward Greenmount East, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester and other neighborhoods that have been ravaged by preventable diseases and infant mortality, and whose residents have little to no access to managed care.

Agency officials hired Jeff Rasmussen, owner of In-Motion Advertising, to add a few "guerrilla marketing tactics" to its more traditional billboards approach. Rasmussen said the tactics are meant to "reach people while they're sitting on their stoop, walking to work and living their lives," adding that billboards on the sides of buildings don't mean as much to people from urban areas, where billboards are everywhere.

"If that's what it takes in this media-saturated society we live in, then that's what we'll do," Rasmussen said. "It's my job to get them to this point."

Agency outreach workers reached thousands in the targeted neighborhoods with informational door hangers shaped like Band-Aids, inviting people to attend an insurance enrollment health fair inside Lexington Market last month. Others saw Rasmussen's canary yellow trucks flanked by giant scrolling ads roving the busiest blocks of their community. And some residents simply found the fair while shopping for groceries, with staffers from radio station 92Q Jams enticing shoppers with free prizes. Hospital workers were also on hand, screening for high blood pressure, diabetes and prostate cancer, among other common ailments.

"Everyone has to grocery shop," said Therese McIntyre, the agency's director of communications and legislative affairs. "We were reaching people who wouldn't necessarily be in health settings." A second fair was held in the parking lot of Santoni's Super Market two weeks later.

Charles Lowther, 44, showed up at the Lexington Market fair after outreach workers he met on the street handed him one of the door hangers. The Baltimore native was laid off in October from his job as a lumberyard forklift driver, leaving him without health coverage and easy access to treatment for the acid reflux disease he suffers from. He's training to become a certified mechanic in hopes of getting a job with benefits. "Honestly, I'm the type that don't like handouts," said the single father of two daughters in their 20s and an 8-year-old son. "I like to earn what I have."

June marked Lowther's second attempt, however, to apply for the Primary Adult Care program, which covers prescriptions, mental health care and dental services. Enrollment in all programs - including the Medical Assistance for Families Program and the Maryland Children's Health Program - is free.

With Lowther's first attempt, he never paid the $12 fee to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, one of the few documents agency staffers need to determine eligibility.

For more information on insurance plans and health fairs, call Baltimore HealthCare Access at 410-649-0500 or 311.

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