Refugees + Health Corps = Better Refugee Health!

It’s the beginning of February – the AmeriCorps halfway mark! Time to check our hours and do our mid-year assessments. It’s also a time to reflect, especially since many of us have just opened the letters we wrote to ourselves from five months past, perhaps asking if we’ve been accomplishing what we set out to do.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture sometimes. Today, we should take a step back, and think about what we do every day as Health Corps Members: we help those with limited healthcare access to overcome their obstacles and live better, healthier lives.

This is what I do at the Nationalities Service Center (NSC), a nonprofit agency that helps immigrants in the process of transitioning to life in the United States. As a Refugee Health Associate, I work mainly with people who have fled difficult lives of poverty, violence, and/or trauma, and have come from far flung countries like Liberia, Eritrea, Iraq, Bhutan, and Burma, to reach a better life in the States. They need help accessing health services as new residents of this country and many have not had access to basic medical care in years.

As part of the health team, I help refugees navigate the US health system, while teaching them to be self-sufficient, and how to overcome their main barriers to health access in the US: language access, knowledge of the health system, and insurance.

On a typical day, I schedule the refugees’ first appointments, escort them to the doctor’s offices, ensure that their insurance works and that they register properly, and, perhaps most importantly, I make sure that the doctor’s offices respect my clients’ rights to interpretation services, as required by Title V of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the provision of public services by any means, including by language.

I also work closely with the refugees’ doctors to coordinate care and to make sure their health needs are met. Whenever the doctors order additional tests or referrals, I see to it that my clients get them done. For some of the refugees, the experience may involve seeing many, many doctors (Can you imagine trying to find a cardiologist, a pulmonologist, a dentist, and eye doctor just days after getting off the plane from Burma??)

Last, but not least, I also help them with the dreaded pieces of mail they inevitably receive: the bills from our inefficient, overcomplicated, and often erroneous medical billing system.

It’s tough work and I’ve learned a lot about dealing with all sorts of people and issues, including non-English speaking refugees, anxious mothers, overbearing fathers, rebellious teenagers, people from various foreign caste-systems, doctors, nurses, Medical Assistants, billing offices, and receptionist staff, the list goes on.

Most of the time the refugees do find ways to thank me (a few vigorous hand shakings and many, many smiles). Sometimes, however, they do get frustrated and confused and it does take a bit of time for many to adjust.

In the end, though, I realize I’ve probably done a lot to improve these people’s lives. Along the way, I’ve also met some truly amazing individuals who have devoted their entire lives to serving others, both at NSC and as part of the Health Corps Program. I feel proud and inspired to be a part of such a great group of people, whose members work so hard for those who are often times marginalized and have so little.

So I encourage my fellow Health Corps members to step back and reflect and I’m sure you’ll reach the same conclusion: we really do get things done! Gives yourselves a pat on the back for making it this far and keep up the good work!

Go Health Corps!

-Stephen Supoyo, Refugee Health Collaborative