Photo of healthcare navigator talking with enrollment event attendees

Copayments. Deductibles. Premiums. The complex world of health insurance coverage can be confusing for even the most informed patients. But for immigrants, refugees and other underserved populations, our country’s healthcare system is particularly daunting.

In a city where 10.5 percent of people lack health insurance coverage, United Way of Metro Chicago community partners are turning to healthcare navigators to help reduce barriers to healthcare access.

“Health insurance is just something completely different and complex,” said Dalia Galvan Morales, manager of Health Access and Immigration and Refugee Services at Heartland Health Centers, a United Way community partner.

“[It’s] very complicated for anyone, but our target population is immigrants and refugees. Coming from a different country and experimenting with this whole new system can add an additional layer of difficulty,” she said. “Having someone you can trust and identify with makes people a little bit more likely to seek services that they need.”

That’s where Zinah Kadhim, a 36-year-old from the suburbs, comes in. She’s one of a few navigators working for Heartland Health Centers on Chicago’s North Side. An immigrant from Iraq, Zinah seeks to help new communities – immigrants, refugees and asylees – understand America’s intricate healthcare system.

“I like [my work] so much because we are helping many families that really need the help,” Zinah said. “They’ve got a lot of papers mailed to them and they don’t know what they mean. We are helping them and educating them about the health system here.”

On any given day, Zinah and her colleagues, including Stephanie Castrejon, respond to pressing healthcare questions, field client calls and facilitate up to 30 appointments at their office.

Their clients typically need help determining which health insurance plans they’re eligible for, researching details of insurance plans and applying for or renewing their insurance coverage. Since 2013, through state, federal and private grant funding, United Way of Metro Chicago has helped facilitate over 26,000 enrollments in health coverage.

Healthcare navigators continue to offer support every step of the way, helping with anything from reviewing enrollment paperwork to filing appeals with the federal Department of Health. Even after someone has health coverage, navigators work to ensure that they have access to care by assisting clients in finding providers within their plan, scheduling appointments and ensuring medical cards are issued. They also offer referrals to other agencies that address a client’s outstanding needs.

“I like [my work] so much because we are helping many families that really need the help.”
Photo of healthcare navigator speaking with an attendee at an enrollment event

Like Zinah, Stephanie, a 24-year-old native Chicagoan, takes great pride in connecting families to the coverage necessary for them to live their healthiest lives and protect themselves from devastating healthcare costs.

“I love working with the communities around me, the underserved population,” Stephanie said. “Especially since I grew up in a neighborhood like Albany Park where there are a lot of different cultures and people come from a lot of different countries.”

These community members often have difficulty finding information in their native languages and may lack health literacy, making it difficult to understand healthcare terminology and concepts – a struggle that exists for many residents.

To break down those barriers, the healthcare navigators, who receive extensive hands-on training, offer services in multiple languages, assess clients’ level of understanding and work diligently to explain terminology in words and phrases that are easily understood.

“I’ve definitely learned that the health coverage system is not very user friendly. A lot of our clients who come in, English is not their first language. They have that language barrier already, and then understanding health coverage lingo. It’s pretty difficult,” Stephanie, an English and Spanish speaker, said.

By resolving these difficulties and teaching community members how to navigate this system, Zinah, Stephanie and their colleagues directly improve the lives of enrollees who can finally access the care they deserve.

“It really makes me feel good once I see that I’m able to explain [the healthcare system] to them and they’re able to understand and reassure themselves that they understand what’s going on,” Stephanie said. “Doing one simple thing for them goes a long way.”

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