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.