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Health Care Insurer Courts Africans
By Olayinka Fadahunsi
Bafode Drame well knows the trials and tribulations of the average African immigrant's life. When his employers at healthcare insurance provider WellCare of New York Inc., launched a new marketing campaign targeted at recruiting African newcomers in the New York City area for state-sponsored low-cost or free healthcare plans, he was not surprised that the response from the growing community was slow.

"We have a problem penetrating this community. We have to convince them that whatever information we are asking for has nothing to do with the (Immigration and Naturalization Services) INS".

Drame draws inspiration from his own chaotic introduction to the American healthcare system several years ago. A severe automobile accident several years ago almost ended the young immigrants pursuit of the American dream when a collision with a speeding taxi left him with extensive facial damage and a staggering hospital bill.

"At the hospital they examined me and (bandaged) some of my wounds, but I left as soon as possible," said Drame, recalling the incident. "I was hurt badly, but I had to go back to work since my job didn't provide any health plan or workers compensation."

Unable to afford recurring visits to the hospital, Drame lived with excruciating dental pains for years. His jaw and front teeth were damaged in the accident, but he thought he would be unable to afford the necessary surgery to repair his mouth. "If I had gone to the hospital and filled out an application for health coverage however, I would probably have qualified for free care," said Drame.

His experience inspired him to propose the idea to address the needs of working-class African immigrants who are eligible for New York Citys Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus Programs. Drame, who devised the program along with the owners of the company, says reactions so far have tended to be skeptical or dismissive.

"Many people do not know that they can qualify for these free or cheap plans, so they continue to pay a fortune for one-time visits to private doctors," said Drame. He also points out that West African immigrants who have had an invigorating influence on local commerce in Harlem and the South Bronx are often more concerned with sending money to their families back home than providing for their own health insurance. Little importance is attached to the concept of a managed-care health plan and regular check-ups with a physician.

WellCare's appeal to the community is rooted in two of New York's most ambitious public health programs- Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus. Drame is especially excited about the prospect of spreading the word about Child Health Plus, a successful insurance program which provides part or full coverage for children under the age of 19 without regard for their legal status.

Children with working parents whose incomes are over the limit allowed for Medicaid and under the state's income guidelines are provided with a Medicaid benefit card and health plan enrollment at no cost. Children who are ineligible for Medicaid due to their parent's illegal status are also enrolled in a health plan of their choice, although middle-income families may be required to pay a discounted monthly premium.

Family Health Plus is an expanded version of the older Child Health Plus campaign. The program provides coverage for adults between the ages of 19 and 64 who are ineligible for Medicaid, and was launched in March of last year with an extensive advertising campaign featuring Governor George Pataki.

The $11.5 billion budget shortfall this year has left the state increasingly conscious of expenditures, and in February, the Health Department announced that it would end all radio and television advertisements for Family Health Plus. The state had earlier put an end to advertisements for Child Health Plus. "New marketing initiatives like WellCare's outreach to Africans helps to fill the void left by the state's withdrawal," said Drame.

Drame has started planning to open a branch office in Harlem, the cultural and commercial heart of the Francophone West African community.

"For a while, you would see George Patakis health plan advertising everywhere in the city, in English and Spanish," said Drame about the state's early aggressive bilingual promotion.

"They didn't advertise in French, but working in this industry, I feel that I'm in a position to help other African people, so I wanted to put the message out about these programs. It's crucial to have health coverage in this country."

Bafode Drame can be reached at 917-655-9525
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