15:14 PM

Helping Members Earn High School Equivalency Diplomas, Horizon Invests in a Healthier New Jersey



A new program from Horizon BCBSNJ helps our state’s Medicaid members earn a high school diploma and open up opportunities for longer, happier lives.

It’s never too late to earn a high school diploma.

Not for one New Jersey resident in his mid-20s who was forced to choose an alternate career path due to an accident that made physical labor too challenging. He knew that a high school diploma would be necessary to find better employment opportunities.

Or a 22-year-old woman who lost her mother during high school and had to drop out because of her chronic depression.

Or a grandmother who wants to do something that makes her happy – and makes her grandkids proud.

For all the different reasons these Medicaid members wanted to complete their high school education, there was one common obstacle: They didn’t have the resources to do it on their own.

Fortunately, they found an unexpected ally: their health insurance company. This January, Horizon NJ Health, part of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ), started offering a new program called Horizon Neighbors in Health: Education Works to its Medicaid members that helping them earn a High School Equivalency (HSE) diploma.

Open to eligible members who rely on Horizon BCBSNJ’s Medicaid division for their health coverage, the program connects members with HSE preparation centers, develops individualized study plans for the students, pays for testing and book fees, and can even provide funds for transportation and childcare on testing days.

The goal is to remove any barriers that are preventing these students from getting their HSE diploma. Many Medicaid members cannot afford the $120 test or the hundreds more to prepare for it.

Why would an organization like Horizon BCBSNJ get involved in an HSE program? It comes down to the proven connection between higher levels of education, better health and a longer life, said Sayanti Saha, PhD, MBA, the Director of Partnerships and Transformation at Horizon BCBSNJ.

Dr. Saha cited numerous studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research that show an additional four years of education can lower five-year mortality by 1.8 percentage points, the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points.

The links between education and health are complex, but one of the clearest connections centers on employment. With a good job, people can earn more money and be able to afford to eat healthier foods and live in healthier neighborhoods. They also have less stress, helping to improve their mental health.

“Sometimes it can be as simple as having a better job means you have the time and the resources to get a regular checkup,” said Dr. Saha.

This is where an HSE comes in. According to Census Bureau’s 2016 Current Population Survey data, the unemployment rate for high-school dropouts was about four percent higher compared with adults with a high school degree among 25- to 34-year-olds.

Approaching every member as an individual

The program has enrolled approximately 65 students from several New Jersey counties, including Essex, Atlantic, Camden, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hudson, Passaic, Monmouth, Ocean, Morris, Union and Somerset. Horizon NJ Health, New Jersey’s largest Medicaid carrier with about 880,000 members, is the only Medicaid program available in every New Jersey county, and the HSE program is only one of its kind in the state.

The students range from age 18 all the way into their 70s. Some are parents. Some are working, and others are between jobs.

All of them meet with Sandy Estrada, a member life coach at Horizon BCBSNJ, who gets to know each student’s individual needs and how the program can help address them. She is currently in the process of connecting them with HSE prep centers, including community colleges, close to their own zip codes.

“Some members have difficulty with certain subjects like math,” explained Estrada. “Some want to take the test in a few months, others will need longer. It’s about meeting the members where they are.”

For the grandmother who wants to set an example for her grandkids, she plans to use the HSE diploma as a springboard to a career in nursing, said Estrada.

“It’s important that these members don’t just stop at the HSE,” said Estrada. “It’s my hope that they pursue higher education so they can go ever further in life.”

Removing barriers to a healthier life

Funding for the program is part of Horizon BCBSNJ’s five-year plan to invest some of the $125 million it expects in refunds resulting from federal tax reform into several areas that can create healthier communities, including social determinants of health. These factors – like access to healthy food, transportation and education – can have as profound an effect on people’s health as visits to a doctor.

“A high school diploma can close a significant gap for many of our members and lead them to better health,” said Dr. Saha. “This program is here to give them the support they need and let them know that they’re not alone.”