David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed appalling but familiar gaps in our health care system, especially for low-income New Yorkers, communities of color, residents with special needs and those in culturally and linguistically isolated communities. The economic fallout of the pandemic has also generated an unprecedented need for assistance accessing health care and coverage among people who have lost their job-based coverage, were previously uninsured, or cannot afford care.

Consider this: more than 1 million New Yorkers have lost job-based coverage as a result of COVID-19, the majority of whom are black and brown. Indeed, African Americans in New York City reported losing health insurance twice as often as white New Yorkers (14 percent of all households compared to 6 percent).

Since the outset of the pandemic, and its profound and disparate impact on black and brown communities (black New Yorkers are more than twice as likely to have died from COVID-19 as white New Yorkers), there’s been a great deal made of the need to seize this moment to address systemic problems and structural inequities that created this crisis. Of course, the seeds of this crisis were planted many decades ago, the result of federal and state policies that systematically denied resources, opportunities and protections to communities of color in favor of white communities. COVID-19 has just brought them into stark focus.

Here is what we should all know by now: Fixing our healthcare system and addressing chronic health disparities will not happen until we as a society seriously confront the perception that black and brown lives are disposable. Of equal importance is committing to institutional reforms and systemic changes that provide care based on need, not community wealth or ability to lobby. This includes targeting precious federal and state resources to the safety-net providers, like Health + Hospitals, who provide the lion’s share of care to low-income communities of color.

In the meantime, New York City can help bridge the gap in the delivery of healthcare by fully supporting community-based organizations (CBOs) on the frontlines providing much-needed health care advocacy assistance to New Yorkers whose medical needs have become increasingly unmet by an overwhelmed healthcare system due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MCCAP: A Crucial Lifeline to Communities of Color

During these dire times, the Managed Care Consumer Assistance Program (MCCAP) is an important community-driven tool that can help right the wrongs of the disparities in our health care system. [Full Disclosure: Community Service Society (CSS) coordinates the MCCAP program.] MCCAP uses a “hub-and-spokes” model to provide services to some of the city’s most marginalized communities. CSS acts as the hub with its live, toll-free helpline, while advocates at 12 CBOs serve as the spokes that provide in-person services in every borough. Note: due to the current restrictions, MCCAP CBOs are providing remote services to New Yorkers in need.

MCCAP provides services to these clients in more than 15 languages and at 15 different locations across all five boroughs. The advocates are trained and supported by CSS to help people understand their insurance, resolve health insurance problems, get medical services, and access affordable care for those who are uninsured.

The program was dismantled in the Great Recession. But thanks to the New York City Council and the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson, Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm and Health Committee Chair Mark Levine, MCCAP was relaunched in 2019 with a grant of $500,000. In bringing MCCAP back, the Council has extended a crucial lifeline to communities of color, immigrants, low-wage workers, people who are LGBTQ, and people with disabilities and/or have mental health or substance use disorders. These populations, historically, have struggled to secure medically necessary care in a healthcare system that has inadequate cultural and linguistic competence and is under-resourced in low-income communities of color due to policies that are permeated with structural racism.

In just three short months, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic (February through April 2020), MCCAP already reached over 1,000 New Yorkers through direct services, community outreach, and workshop events—overcoming logistical obstacles related to the pandemic. And we are serving the people most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: More than 80 percent of MCCAP clients served so far are people of color and/or speak a language other than English at home.

But the current funding for MCCAP is insufficient to adequately serve the communities covered through our CBO network and the influx of clients seeking assistance. To ensure that New York City residents have a trusted and experienced CBO to help them understand and use their coverage and access healthcare during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, we urge the City Council to expand program capacity through increased funding.

MCCAP is an invaluable resource for New Yorkers who need help understanding their insurance options and trouble-shooting potential problems accessing coverage and care because of logistical and financial barriers. Credit the City Council with restoring the program. Now let’s ensure that all those who need healthcare can get it.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.