The Change Harlem Needs: Why the Expansion of Equitable Health Care Matters

By Roger Milliner

From the Apollo Theater to streets named after icons of Black history, few places in New York are home to as many landmarks that embody the presence of its community. While Black and Latinx New Yorkers have made up the cultural fabric of Harlem for generations, residents have also borne the brunt of deeply rooted inequities embedded in the City’s economy, housing, education, and health care systems only amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Harlem emerged as one of Manhattan’s hardest-hit neighborhoods by COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, 84,000 people have tested positive for the virus, at least 1,666 Harlemites (residents of Northern Manhattan) have died, and countless family members grieve the passing of their loved ones. In contrast, many others have lost their jobs. On top of this, there is mounting worry about the orthopox virus (monkeypox) outbreak, rising crime rates, and inflation.

One way to confront these inequities is to increase access to high-quality, comprehensive health care for all Harlem residents. A right, not a privilege that emphasizes proactive treatment to create more accessible, equitable, and holistic care for everyone. 

Health Equity Builds a Legacy For Black Families

It is the birthplace of iconic art and culture, but Harlem’s most important legacy should be caring for its residents. Harlem—especially Black and Hispanic communities—deserves more and better. Health care can no longer be defined by what happens in an exam room; it is about creating several proactive touch points along the way that address the needs of diverse people. 

A child should not miss school for a chronic toothache because of inadequate dental care. At the same time, Black mothers in New York must receive the preventive care required to carry their child to birth safely instead of dying from pregnancy-related causes at eight times the rate of their white peers, a maternal mortality rate that is alarmingly higher than even the nationwide statistic. 

To stand in solidarity with underserved Harlemites, MetroPlusHealth, New York City’s five-star health plan with over 670,000 members, will open its new flagship location next to the Apollo Theater on Monday, August 29, 2022, to provide critical services to the community. To meet Harlem’s needs, MetroPlusHealth will take a localized and comprehensive approach to connecting with residents. While offering holistic services such as free, 24/7 telehealth visits for physical and mental health, access to a nutritionist/dietician at no cost, medically tailored meals, no-cost insurance for refugees residing in Northern Manhattan, and wellness incentives that enable members to collect rewards when they are proactive about their health. Expanding access to robust health coverage while lowering rates to an affordable range across the age spectrum is vital to ensure the health and prosperity of Black and Hispanic families.

Answering the Call for Change

As New York grapples with a sixth COVID wave and hospitalizations are on the rise, people are still wary about accessing health services, which means many everyday medical needs are being neglected. New Yorkers with chronic health conditions must treat their illnesses and prevent complications before they escalate into something life-threatening. This is where the local efforts of coverage providers can help fill the gaps to reach residents where they live and work. Community-focused strategies begin with hiring healthcare leaders who look and speak like the communities they serve. This means providing a customer service team that speaks over 40 languages and reflects the broad diaspora of those seeking coverage.

Providers need to be well-versed in the diverse medical needs of Black and Latinx New Yorkers, including high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Community members should be empowered to take control of their health through wellness initiatives in trusted spaces, from blood pressure screenings at barbershops to hearing a trusted pastor raise awareness and promote health equity.

Started in Harlem. Staying in Harlem

For New Yorkers and by New Yorkers, MetroPlusHealth’s new location in Harlem reflects its commitment to keeping everything local—both its health care approach and investment in the community. As many small businesses in Harlem were forced to lay off staff or close during the pandemic, economic hardships were felt by Black and Latinx families. With the opening of its Harlem location, MetroPlusHealth is committed to hiring a diverse staff to help bridge the gap toward providing equitable care.

An investment in high-value preventative care to improve the health and lives of Harlem residents will ensure that the cultural epicenter of New York economically recovers while continuing to be a vibrant destination to live, work, and visit.