I met Charlene on the streets of Morristown, New Jersey, lying on a bench in her husband's lap. I cautiously approached her, nervous of disturbing her nap. But when I asked her if she had health care -- which is what I did in communities (particularly low-income cities) throughout New Jersey as a summer fellow for Enroll America -- she opened up to me on a variety of subjects: about her recent eviction from her home, about her husband's job loss. They had been homeless for three months, and had been living day-to-day with support from the local soup kitchen.
Enroll America is a non-profit that strives to educate all Americans about their health-care options under the new Affordable Care Act. My daily work usually consisted of roaming the streets of cities in my area -- bearing my "Get Covered This Summer!" pin on my chest, my standard clipboard in my hand -- asking residents if they were interested in learning about their health-care options. The goal of my inquisition was to get names and contact information of eligible citizens. After Enroll America enters this information into its online database, the organization sends those citizens information on how to obtain the best health-care plan for their current situation -- and who to contact to help them with the enrollment process. (As an organization, Enroll America does not directly recommend any particular health plan to an individual -- it solely educates eligible consumers about their options for different available plans.)
Although often times in this role people presumed I was trying to sell them insurance, when one person finally showed me some attention, after hours of roaming, it was a high like no other.
After walking up to someone, I initiated conversation by asking if they had heard of the Affordable Care Act. Surprisingly, many people had not (if you referenced it as ObamaCare, it was far more widely recognized). If I sensed even a remote interest from them in what I had to say, I introduced myself, and my work for Enroll America. The first message I tried to give them can best be summarized as the Four Points:
- Financial help is available to all those eligible to receive it.
- It is of no importance if you have a pre-existing condition: all providers are legally obligated to accept all applicants for insurance.
- Every insurance plan has to cover all essential health benefits, such as hospital visits, doctor visits, prescription medications, etc.
- All plans must be written clearly, so that everyone can understand them. No fine print!
Perhaps the most exciting part of my work was the uncertainty of going out into the streets, never knowing the numerical outcome the day would have, or the heartbreaking, compelling stories that exist out there, like Charlene's. Or trying to navigate communication barriers: I ran into people who spoke only Spanish (and some people who pretended to speak only Spanish to avoid conversation), as well as a hearing-impaired woman whose daughter translated my inquiries to her in sign language.
This excitement is exactly what I was looking for when I began searching for a summer internship, and it was so much more fun than I ever expected. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with people that I never would have met, and slowly embedding myself into a community that could really use help.