Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:54 p.m. Wednesday. The program recently completed a successful six-month pilot period, and launched in May.
Eddie Polanco, speaking to a room of healthcare professionals and community leaders on Tuesday, said he owns a suit, but doesn’t typically wear it to his job.
Instead, he usually wears what he wore on Tuesday: a gray Chicago Bulls hat with a red bill, a black T-shirt and ripped jeans. He proudly displayed his tattoos.
“This is my uniform,” he said. “When I walk up to a person, I introduce them to Eddie Polanco, not a healthcare ambassador.”
Polanco is one of three healthcare ambassadors for Empower Health, a newly launched program in the city that aims to connect at-risk residents with health and social services. The program recently completed a successful six-month pilot period, and launched in May. It focuses on individuals who are on Medicaid or are uninsured.
The program is a collaboration among the City Mission of Schenectady, Alliance for Better Health, MVP Health Care and Hometown Health Centers.
An Empower Health ambassador will engage residents at municipal housing, food pantries, bus stops, shelters and elsewhere to explain the program. They provide a survey, which asks individuals to respond to statements like “I know what each of my prescribed medications do,” and “I know how to prevent problems with my health.”
Based on their responses, the individual is put in touch with Shatiki Beatty, who serves as the program coordinator and health coach. She is essentially a bridge between the client and the services they require.
For example, she will set up a doctor’s appointment for a client, and, if they require transportation, will arrange for a MediCab to pick them up and take them to the office, she said.
Ambassadors, like Polanco, are generally residents who have dealt with poverty and other challenges. Those individuals are then equipped to interact with residents who face barriers to receiving proper care, such as housing, transportation or financial issues.
Officials said it’s often difficult for doctors and other healthcare professionals to establish trust with individuals who face barriers to care or who have limited experience seeking treatment. Having them engage with an ambassador helps make that connection more easily, they said.
“Vulnerable populations need a voice and a representative,” Beatty said. “Often they can’t relate to everyone, but they can relate to someone who understands what they’re going through.”
In the two months since its inception, ambassadors engaged 598 people. Of those, almost all of them were in the targeted population of people unable to manage their own healthcare, and roughly half were then set up with a health coach to connect them to proper resources.
Based on its initial success, Michael Saccocio, CEO of the City Mission, said he believes it could serve as a blueprint for communities nationwide, particularly given the current divisive nature of healthcare.
Empower Health employs four people – three ambassadors and one coach – and cost roughly $50,000 to start, said Saccocio. The program takes in revenue through reimbursements from healthcare providers when Empower makes referrals, he said, and some of its initial costs were covered by a grant from the Schenectady Foundation.
The program is focused on the city for now, but it could soon expand elsewhere in the region, Saccocio said.
“The best solutions to some of the problems we face in our under-resourced communities, are often in those communities,” he said.