As an employee of a local retail pharmacy, David Sugrue has seen firsthand people’s frustrations with their health insurance.
So Sugrue, a UConn pharmacy graduate student, said he was naturally interested when offered an opportunity to help people enroll for health care coverage under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and Connecticut’s health exchange, Access Health CT.
After 45 hours of training in the new law and community outreach, Sugrue is one of nine UConn Assisters who have been dedicating their spare time to helping people obtain health insurance at the non-profit Access Community Action Agency in Willimantic, Conn.
“We’re here to promote outreach and educate people in the law,” Sugrue said during a break at a recent health insurance enrollment fair. “We’re not trying to play politics or steer people toward any particular plan. We’re here to give them the knowledge they need to choose health insurance, and to let them know we have the resources to help.”
All of the UConn Assisters are affiliated with the School of Pharmacy.
Peter Tyczkowski, the school’s coordinator of educational outreach, says the program exposes students to the larger world of health care policy and its impact both on the pharmacy profession and the patients pharmacists serve.
“These students have an opportunity to see history in action and they are part of it,” Tyczkowski says. “This is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
The UConn students visit the Access Community Action Agency about once a week to provide in-person assistance to individuals as they come or as part of a pre-arranged appointment. They also participate in regional health insurance enrollment fairs on weekends. The Access agency in Willimantic is the regional outreach office for Windham and Tolland counties, one of the areas in the state with the highest rate of medically uninsured.
Shirley Reimann, the Access agency’s director of social services and a key staff navigator for the enrollment program, says the students are “tremendous. [They] are coming down here to help with open enrollment, and they are organizing events to help enroll UConn students.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also praised the UConn students’ efforts during a recent visit to an enrollment fair in Rockville, Conn. Courtney pointed out that Connecticut currently leads the country in health insurance enrollment under the ACA initiative. The state has far surpassed its goal of 100,000, with 126,000 individuals currently enrolled. The new goal is to have 150,000 people enrolled by the end of March.
“What you are doing is an essential service,” Courtney told the student Assisters.
UConn President Susan Herbst, who joined Courtney at the Rockville event, said the students’ outreach mission is a great example of the kind of community engagement University leaders encourage of students as part of the school’s academic plan.
“A research university like UConn should be a leader in trying to solve society’s biggest problems – energy, poverty, health care,” Herbst said. “I could not be more proud of our students today.”
Cassandra Doyno, also a pharmacy graduate student, said the Assister program has really opened her eyes about the diverse roles pharmacists play in their communities, and how pharmacists can make a difference in people’s lives.
Working with enrollees, she said a lot of people are intimidated by the new law and cautious about exploring it.
“A lot of people have a stigma about Medicaid,” Doyno says. “They don’t know that it is not just a program for poor people. It’s something for all people. Educating people is the biggest challenge.”
Pharmacy student Jun Wang says the hours spent in training and working with individuals to line up care are worth it when the students see someone benefit from their new health insurance.
“People come in here mad, and they walk out happy. That shows how the Affordable Care Act can help,” Wang says.
The nine UConn pharmacy students active in this project will receive up to $18,000 for their work helping with enrollment as part of a federal grant through Access Health CT. They have decided to donate the money to their preferred pharmacy student professional organizations.