Game Changer: Devoted Public Servant Erin Drinkwater Helps New Yorkers Get Insurance

With over two decades of public service in government and nonprofits, it’s clear that longtime Brooklyn resident Erin Drinkwater has devoted her life to advocacy and activism. But she also serves her community as a member of Brooklyn Community Board 1, the Board of Managers of Fairview Lake YMCA Camps, and as a deacon at Greenpoint Reformed Church.

Queerful sat down to talk with her about her new role as Chief of Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships Officer at MetroPlusHealth, helping provide public health insurance to New York City’s underserved communities. This includes our oft-neglected LGBTQ+ community, who Drinkwater first served as the executive director of Brooklyn Community Pride Center.

“It’s somewhat well-known that lesbian non-binary folks are less likely to receive preventative health care, in the way of mammograms for example,” said Drinkwater. “If you present as non binary, think about what that interaction might look like, from the receptionist to the technician who gives the mammogram.”

Drinkwater recounted the experience of her own first mammogram as someone who is non-binary and is often called ‘sir.’ There was a lot of apprehension as Drinkwater sat in the waiting room in that paper gown. But the technicians never questioned or misrepresented her gender, and she felt it was a positive experience, encouraging her to return annually.

“Making sure that as a plan we’re aware of the unique needs of the LGBTQ+ community is really important,” said Drinkwater. “We have a vast network of providers who are able to meet the unique needs of our community and also be willing to hear constructive criticism when our plan isn’t meeting those needs. That’s how we work with the provider network to make sure all types of procedures are covered in-network. We also work across the plan with colleagues in the office of Chief Medical Officer to make sure the plan is reflecting the needs of New Yorkers, not just as a talking point but as the very mission of MetroPlus.”

Erin Drinkwater

MetroPlusHealth is a wholly-owned subsidiary of NYC Health and Hospitals (HHN), a provider-owned nonprofit health plan that works to make sure all New Yorkers, irrespective of their ability to pay, have access to quality healthcare. Drinkwater said the extensive HHN network includes facilities like NYU Langone and Mt. Sinai Health System, plus 34,000 other providers.

“We work hard every day to build the provider network,” said Drinkwater. “It’s really important for us as a plan local just to New York City’s five boroughs to make sure our employees and providers reflect the demographics of New York City. We make sure we have doctors and other health practitioners who speak a multitude of languages, who are LGBTQ+, South Asian, Latino… You can walk into a doctor’s office and know that the needs you come in with as a patient are understood, and that you will not face questions about the person you, are but about the healthcare outcome you came for.”

MetroPlus has plans for individuals with HIV—and for folks who don’t have insurance, getting enrolled in such a plan is helpful. But Drinkwater also wants people to understand that HHS wants clients to connect with a primary care doctor rather than relying on the Emergency Room for healthcare. MetroPlus will look at their provider network and connect you to accepted providers, including Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. Depending on your plan, you can get zero-dollar copay, reimbursement for gym membership, a dietician, and mental health services. All of those things are important because they are all about getting the care you need when you need it, not hampered by cost.

Drinkwater said MetroPlus also reaches out via community health events; a recent Elmhurst Hospital free mammogram screening for Latino women had 36 participants. Drinkwater also helps with the city workers’ goal plan; for example, in August they expanded access to dieticians for city workers under the goal plan as part of the most generous package in the nation, offering 26 visits at zero dollars.

Senior Public Relations Manager Divendra Jaffar said that “when it comes to MetroPlusHealth, we look at ourselves as more than a healthcare company; we work every day as a team to address health, housing opportunities, food insecurity. Those are things our plan offers. There’s even a rewards program to get points for making a doctor’s appointment, drinking water, doing something healthy—and the points can be used to get items like a scale and other health needs. Rack up points to get things for your household.” “We’re not just going to say, ‘We don’t do that.’ We’ll make sure you find the solution to your particular needs”

MetroPlusHealth is just wrapping up Open Enrollment, a busy period in which they connect with New Yorkers to get them insurance, whether they want to enroll for the first time or change their current plan because it’s not working for them. Drinkwater said that unlike other companies, their top executives aren’t making million-dollar salaries; instead, the profits go back into HHS to provide healthcare for all New Yorkers. If clients are undocumented, they’ll still connect you with healthcare. MetroPlus has already hosted two family community days in Harlem and Lincoln Hospital for the busloads of recent arrivals from the Southern Border who desperately need care.

“In cases like this we’re not just going to say, ‘We don’t do that.’ We’ll make sure you find the solution to your particular needs,” said Drinkwater. “We will connect people in need to care, even if they might not even realize we are here for them.”

Making Government Work for People

Drinkwater comes to this role after almost eight years as Deputy Commissioner for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Social Services Homeless Services. She worked closely with colleagues to make sure that state’s welfare management system changed their gender marker to offer not just male and female, but also a non-binary option. She made sure clients were able to have their preferred name still tied to their case, if their legal name was not the one they were currently using. She even made sure all staff got appropriate training.

“The biggest responsibility as a civil servant is making sure the government works for the people,” said Drinkwater. “It might be language issues, geography challenges to get to the center… I’m most proud of getting legislation passed that allowed for clients to apply for benefits online, not in the physical center.”

Clients used to spend the entire day trying to navigate their job and childcare to show up in person, but now an individual can apply for benefits online. Drinkwater said the city had asked the state to do this for several years but was rejected. When Covid shut down the city, they piloted technology to turn that switch on quickly.

“You can imagine the chaos that would have ensued at those centers with individuals seeking benefits in the midst of a pandemic requiring us to social distance,” she said. “I’m really proud of that. I’m a big believer that government can make big changes in people’s lives, but decisionmakers must reflect the people being served, and leadership must be willing to listen to folks most impacted by their decisions to find way to take their own lived experiences to effect change as well.” Drinkwater invests just as much love and attention to her gay community as well.

She served as the very first executive director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center. When she began there, they occupied the second floor of an office on Atlantic Avenue, and then found a space in MetroTech that was a lot bigger. But it shared an entrance with a sub shop, which was less than ideal.

“Our dream was to have a permanent location for what is a significant LGBTQ+ community that is very diverse and has a host of needs,” she recalled. “We were working with Don Cappocia and his organization to ultimately be included in the community benefits agreement for Bedford Union Armory, and had support from Borough President Marty Markowitz, then Eric Adams, for capital funds to be used for buildout of space. I was lucky enough to get us into Bedford and so glad to see the dream realized.”

She stressed that physical space is so important, especially today when we are all so reliant on technology and apps to connect. There is something to be said for having a physical space in which to connect to like-minded individuals and find support in person. Drinkwater sent the best of luck to the interim ED and leadership of BCPC.

A Good Neighbor

Drinkwater invests in her local neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn as well. She is a Community Board 1 Member, helping make decisions about local liquor licenses, development, housing, and parks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Her first exposure to CBs was as a liaison for Congressman Jerry Nadler, and she was impressed by how a huge city was at the end of the day run by decisions made by neighborhood organizations.

Drinkwater has lived in Greenpoint for 16 years with her partner, three cats, and a dog. She trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and serves as a deacon at Greenpoint Reformed Church, where they operate a soup kitchen. Drinkwater first heard about it while working at Empire State Pride Agenda.

“I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school through college, and was looking for a faith community that accepted me for all of me,” she said. “I talked to folks about the church and started going. I was really impressed with two pastors, Ann Kanseld and Jennifer Aull; they’re married and wonderful. They do a lot of social justice-oriented ministry within the church. A couple of years ago they asked me to serve as deacon and foster the mission of the church to worship and operate through a social justice lens. I like it, because it’s a great way to meet my neighbors and be enriched in the spiritual sense I was looking for.”

“I’m a big government nerd, and a rm believer in making government work better for all,” said Drinkwater. “I wake up every day and think how the decisions I make can benefit the most vulnerable, give those who don’t have a voice a seat at the table during decision-making processes, and advance the city for everyone.”

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