Yung Kim, Korean Community Center seeks to fill crucial gaps in care , 8/20/05 Record, The (Hackensack, NJ) (August 20, 2005).
EXCERPT Health coverage for minorities is a national problem, said Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio who specializes in health-care and racial law. "Access to health insurance is a problem beyond economics, location and cultural competency," she said. "All of those issues impact availability and willingness to access health care." Before agencies can increase coverage within a community, officials must often impress upon immigrants the need for it, Randall said. "The countries where many have immigrated from have a different kind of insurance system, and they may not see the need for insurance," she said. "Most societies have universal access to health care."
ARTICLE Aug. 20--Human anatomy diagrams on the walls, a blood-pressure machine in a corner and a doctor's desk front and center. The examination room at the Korean Community Center in Englewood isn't finished yet, but it's looking medical. Flush with a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Kye-Eun C. Ma allows her imagination to run wild with tools to provide health care for the Korean community, especially the uninsured. "We would like to hire a full-time physician down the road," said Ma, president of Friends of Grace Seniors, which runs the center. "The way we grew, nothing is impossible." The dearth of health insurance among minority communities is a national concern that has drawn the attention of local officials. The Korean community center received its grant because it is in an ideal position to address cultural, language and other barriers minorities face in finding basic health care, said Gretchen Hartling, co-director of New Jersey Health Initiatives for the foundation. "This is a really common problem in New Jersey, which is one of the most diverse states in the country," she said. "One of the priority issues is to eliminate gaps in the health-care experience for racial or ethnic minorities." As part of its proposal, the community center will create a network of doctors who will not only provide care, but also have a cultural understanding of their patients, Hartling said. The center already helps people get health insurance and offers classes that promote healthy living. "A non-threatening first encounter, particularly with people hesitant or fearful of the health-care system, is very important," Hartling said. "Treating hypertension early lowers the number of strokes. Getting a diabetic on the right regimen means they will not have an insulin crisis and wind up in an emergency room." According to the Center for Health Statistics, about 16 percent of Asians in New Jersey were without health insurance in 2003, the most recent year for which data are available. During the same year, about 19 percent of foreign-born Asians were without health insurance, while only 10 percent of U.S.-born Asian-Americans went uninsured, according to the data. Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks are uninsured at a higher rate -- 33 and 22 percent, respectively -- but the Asian community faces similar hurdles. Health coverage for minorities is a national problem, said Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio who specializes in health-care and racial law. "Access to health insurance is a problem beyond economics, location and cultural competency," she said. "All of those issues impact availability and willingness to access health care." Before agencies can increase coverage within a community, officials must often impress upon immigrants the need for it, Randall said. "The countries where many have immigrated from have a different kind of insurance system, and they may not see the need for insurance," she said. "Most societies have universal access to health care." The state Department of Health and Senior Services is trying to bridge the health insurance gap in New Jersey by reimbursing community health centers that care for the uninsured in areas identified as "medically underserved," said Celeste Andriot Wood, assistant commissioner of family health services. The Friends of Grace Center is not a part of the state program, but received a state grant earlier this year for its diabetes prevention program. "We have added about 15 sites statewide, and in the coming year acting Governor Codey will open 10 additional sites," Wood said. Part of the problem facing immigrant communities is the cost. Many immigrants are self-employed or work for employers that don't offer insurance, Wood said. But many immigrants also face cultural and language barriers that health-care providers must address, Wood said. Community members feel more comfortable with culturally sensitive health care, which helps break down feelings of isolation, she said. It also allows doctors, nurses and other health-care providers to get their messages across more effectively, Wood said. Despite recruitment efforts, doctors and other health-care professionals from the community can still be difficult to find. "They don't need an absolute reflection of the community," Wood said. "But they still need to be culturally sensitive to community needs." Englewood Hospital, which is working with the Friends of Grace Seniors, has the tools to adapt health care to its diverse community, said Michael Pietrowicz, the hospital's vice president for planning and program development. The hospital has a list of staff members who can translate into 21 languages, as well as access to a service that can translate over the telephone for an additional 200. Partnering with the Friends of Grace Seniors is an extension of the hospital's efforts to work with the region's growing diversity, Pietrowicz said. "It is not difficult, but a challenge to serve the different communities in different ways," Pietrowicz said. "Dr. Ma provides an excellent vehicle into the community." The hospital and Friends of Grace Seniors have already partnered to provide monthly health screenings, education, blood collection for lab tests and services to identify and treat the beginning stages of diabetes and hypertension. "Preventative health care is the best, and our mission is to improve the health status of the communities we serve," Pietrowicz said. "Dr. Ma is a very savvy professional, who is well-regarded and established in the community. Any agency with that type of foundation is one we look to partner with." The idea for the grant proposal was inspired in part by Ma's experience working at a free blood-pressure screening booth. "I was surprised," she said. "About half the people didn't have any insurance. -- Even if they are financially able to pay, like a small business owner, they take the risk or find the application too difficult." Ma is giddy about the five-year-old community center's direction, considering its humble beginnings. The Friends of Grace Seniors started out as a group of about a dozen Korean seniors meeting in the basement of her Tenafly home. The group would cook and stitch quilts that Ma sold out of the trunk of her car to raise money for a dedicated space. They moved into a 1,000-square-foot office in Fort Lee before growing into the 15,000-square-foot community center in Englewood, complete with a computer room, media room, classrooms and an exercise space. The center has its own magazine and offers classes in everything from stained glass to yoga. Healthy living is a recurring theme and, coupled with the grant, another achievement, Ma said. "We have made progress and had success," Ma said. "The three-year grant will help make us better."