DC Health Link and the DC Office of African Affairs are working to insure local African immigrant communities with weekly town halls through April 7. (Courtesy Photo)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

Are you a recent D.C. immigrant who delayed signing up for health benefits in 2020 due to concerns about your immigration status?  

Are you turned off by a complicated sign-up process? 

Or maybe you’ve been hunkering down throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping you don’t get sick without the safety net of health insurance?  Then DC Health Link is reaching out to you.  

“Our goal is for all District residents to be insured. This is even more important now because of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Mila Kofman, Executive Director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority.

Each Wednesday through April 7, the DC Office of African Affairs and DC Health Link will sponsor a series of virtual town hall meetings to ensure the immigrant community has access to information about accessing quality healthcare options as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

“Since March 2020, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for health insurance,” said Digital Communication Specialist for DC Health Link Alisha Hughley, during her presentation at the first virtual town hall held earlier this month. 

Hughley urged town hall participants and all District residents who are not currently enrolled in a health insurance plan to take advantage of the special COVID-19 enrollment period going on now. She said an easier, more streamlined application process with plenty of help is available.

“We require less paperwork than ever before and have done whatever we needed to make our ‘health assisters’ available through a virtual one-touch experience,” Hughley said. 

Health assisters provide residents with one-on-one help with determining financial eligibility for health plans, explain the details of health coverage and provide fair, impartial support to D.C. residents in choosing a health plan. 

Town hall presenters emphasized to the audience that local immigrants who are eligible for Medicaid no longer need worry about negative consequences tied to receiving health benefits. 

“With our new President we have scaled back the Public Charge Rule,” said Director of Legal Services at Whitman-Walker Health, Amy Nelson, JD. 

Earlier this month, the US Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) removed changes to the Public Charge Rule adopted in 2019 during the Trump Administration from the Federal Register.  

In 2019, the Trump Administration directed the US Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) to issue groundbreaking changes to the Public Charge Rule. The low wealth immigrant community was negatively impacted by USCIS’ inclusion of Medicaid and other forms of public assistance on the list of public benefits that could endanger approval of an immigrant seeking Lawful Permanent Residency (LPR) commonly known as “Green Card status.” 

The threat of restrictions over the expanded definition of what it meant to be a “Public Charge,” left some members of the immigrant community afraid to seek health insurance and basic medical care for themselves and their families.  

Nelson said the Trump era changes to the Public Charge Rule have now been reversed. She listed a range of public benefits that are not part of Public Charge Rule scrutiny and clarified that Medicaid could no longer prevent an immigrant from pursuing LPR.  

“Concern about the Public Charge Rule should not prevent you from signing up for health insurance,” Nelson said. 

Immigrants comprise 14 percent of the District’s population, while one in nine D.C. residents has at least one parent who is an immigrant, according to the American Immigration Council. The organization’s 2020 report, states two in five D.C. immigrants are naturalized citizens and more than half have college degrees.     

Kofman urged people who still have questions about signing up for health benefits to join DC Link on-line at the upcoming Wednesday sessions, including March 24, targeting the Francophone African Community,    http://bit.ly/GetTheFactsMar24March 31, with special outreach to the Amharic speaking community http://bit.ly/GetTheFactsMar31  and April 7, with an emphasis on the Arabic speaking community http://bit.ly/GetTheFactsApr7.  

“We conduct special outreach to all of our communities,” Kofman said. “We are also working with other Mayoral offices to reach all District residents and to help get everyone insured, Kofman added.