NYCHA Program Improves Health of Harlem Residents

Milagros Valentín – “Millie,” who is 73 – says that her hypertension is under control thanks to what she has learned through the HHAP program. (Photo courtesy of the DOHMH via El Diario)

At a time when New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) housing projects are the center of a citywide political debate regarding the poor state of many of its buildings, a piece of good news arises stating that, at least in one specific neighborhood, residents of Hispanic origin are enjoying some benefits.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced that the overall health conditions of the residents of five NYCHA projects in East and Central Harlem have improved thanks to a community program launched by the city agency in 2015.

The Harlem Health Advocacy Partners (HHAP) initiative developed by the DOHMH Center for Health Equity – on which El Diario did an extensive report in August 2017 – is a program seeking to improve the general health conditions of the residents of those five NYCHA housing projects, where there is a high incidence of chronic diseases, including diabetes, asthma, hypertension and heart disease.

Thanks to this program, the DOHMH has trained everyday New Yorkers – most of them residents of those NYCHA projects – to become promoters and community health workers (CHW) to help their own neighbors stay healthy.

Over a period of six months, a total of 12 CHWs carry out talks and workshops and use visual aids to educate residents about disease prevention and how illnesses may cause complications and attack different organs in the body. All services are free of charge.

According to a report published by the DOHMH, as a result of the services offered through the HHAP program, more than 3,000 people in these neighborhoods have been connected to over 600 wellness events, including general health checks, group walks, and disease prevention and management workshops.

In addition, between 2016 and 2017, the 12 community health workers carried out some 2,500 individual visits to 678 HHAP participants. The data divulged by the DOHMH also revealed that, in six months, over 90 percent of the HHAP training participants reported improvements and progress toward the objectives they had established to better their health.

Chronic illnesses in El Barrio

“This program has definitely helped me keep my disease under control. They taught me a lot about diet and how to eat better. My counselor, Alberta, would give me recipes and I would follow them. They also taught me about exercising, and we formed a walking club. I have learned a lot about my disease and all that can happen if I do not take care of myself,” said Milagros Valentín, 73, who has suffered from hypertension for many years and who participated in the HHAP program.

“I discovered that I had high blood pressure in the 80s, when I was about 40, and, although my disease is still there, it is now being controlled thanks to medication and therapy. My cholesterol and my heart are okay. I have learned a lot about what I should and should not eat and all I have to do, the types of exercise programs I should follow,” added Valentín, who is known in the neighborhood as “Millie” and who belongs to a swimming club for seniors.

Originally from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, she lives in the Lincoln Houses project, located at 2130 Madison Ave. in East Harlem. “I have lived in El Barrio practically all my life, and it wasn’t until my sister died that I started worrying about my health. She passed away of a stroke at 67, and my mom, who is 99, has high blood pressure. That is why I sought help with the HHAP health workers,” said Millie, who has a daughter, three grandchildren and three great-granddaughters.

In East Harlem, where 50 percent of all residents are Latino, like Millie, the rates of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and asthma are disproportionately higher than in other neighborhoods. For that reason, the HHAP program was launched in that neighborhood, which relies on community health workers from the area to offer health training to local residents.

“I always recommend other people and my neighbors to join the program. They help you stay healthy, not just physically but also mentally,” said the Puerto Rican-born grandmother.

According to DOHMH statistics, 54 percent of the resident of the five NYCHA projects in East Harlem who are over 35 have been diagnosed with hypertension, 25 percent of them suffer from diabetes and 12 percent have asthma. Three quarters of all people over 35 living in these buildings have one of these three chronic illnesses, which could not only incapacitate them but also lead to premature death. Worse still, a third of them (35 percent) said that they suffer from three or four chronic conditions at the same time, while 21 percent have four or more of them.

Savings for Harlem

In addition to the essential education and advice participants receive from the CHWs – who help them manage their conditions and stay healthy – NYCHA residents who join the HHAP program also receive assistance from health care promoters regarding obtaining health coverage, including enrolling in an insurance plan and solving any problems they may have to pay their medical bills.

The DOHMH report states that the HHAP program has also helped over 900 participants with more than 2,000 issues related to health insurance and that health workers have led Harlem residents to save some $200,000 in medical or out-of-pocket expenses related to billing errors, coverage disputes and copay medication payments.

An estimated one in five NYCHA residents living in East and Central Harlem (18 percent) turn solely to emergency rooms to obtain regular health care services. Most of these residents are Latinos born in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

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