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Connecting our Communites to Care

Spring 2014
Feature Story

AFT affiliates and their partners hit the ground to get the word out about health reform in their communities.

COLLABORATION MAY BE the key to getting the Affordable Care Act working more efficiently on the ground. And, with that in mind, some AFT Healthcare affiliates are partnering with healthcare organizations and others in their communities to educate the public about the ACA.

Even as the ACA rollout was struggling under the weight of the demand, AFT members were already teaming up with partners to help people in their communities understand the law and how to enroll in the insurance marketplace. “For too long, we’ve allowed too many in our communities to go without healthcare coverage, with a healthcare system that is broken. That should no longer be acceptable, and if we do our work together, it won’t be,” says Ann Twomey, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, which is based in New Jersey.

This past December, HPAE co-sponsored an ACA forum, called “Cover Camden,” which attracted more than 100 Camden, N.J., residents, community leaders and health professionals who wanted to learn about the ACA and receive help signing up for health coverage. ACA “navigators” were also on hand to assist community members in filling out the enrollment application. The navigator program was created under the ACA to help consumers understand new coverage options in the marketplace and find the most affordable coverage that meets their healthcare needs.

“The ACA offers new consumer protections and coverage options,” says Maura Collinsgru, a health policy advocate with New Jersey Citizen Action, who spoke at the event. “New Jerseyans need to know that despite the past problems with the website, these options are available to them.”

HPAE, which represents 1,000 registered nurses at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, hosted “Cover Camden” with the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Cooper University Health Care, New Jersey Citizen Action, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, and Camden Churches Organized for People.

This is not the first time HPAE and Cooper have collaborated on behalf of the staff and patients. In the past, they’ve worked together on safe patient handling programs, which have reduced injury rates for patients and workers alike, and violence prevention measures to ensure the safety of Cooper’s patients, their families and workers.

“As health providers, I believe it is our duty to advocate for our patients, not just at the bedside but in our communities, statehouse and federal government,” Twomey says. “HPAE and our nurses take that role very seriously. To do so with the aim of improving the lives of our patients, and in a coalition like this, is an honor, not just an obligation.”

The Ohio Nurses Association held a similar event for the residents of Columbus, Ohio, in December. Co-sponsored by the Universal Health Care Action Network Ohio and Seniority Benefit Group, the event, “The Affordable Care Act, Medicaid Expansion and You,” featured two state legislators, Sen. Capri Cafaro and Rep. Michael Stinziano.

And, earlier that month, AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled to Youngstown, Ohio, where she was a speaker at an informational session on the Affordable Care Act at Youngstown State University. The session was attended by members of the community, the state Legislature and the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association.

“The Youngstown event went extremely well,” says Tiffany Wenter, the ONA’s director of health policy. “The community learned a lot, and we wanted to do it again. The event drew a number of community members who were receptive to what we had to say.”

Connecting to the promise

When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the AFT supported the goals of the legislation, which was designed to re-create the U.S. healthcare system for the better, building a system that keeps people well, instead of just treating them after they become sick. As a part of AFT Healthcare’s agenda for reclaiming the promise of high-quality, affordable healthcare for all, the division wants its members to be part of solutions that make healthcare more accessible. The work that affiliates like HPAE and the ONA are doing to promote the ACA is consistent with this priority.

“We held the event in an effort to educate the public about the ACA and the recent Medicaid expansion in Ohio before the Dec. 23 sign-up deadline,” says Molly Ackley, the ONA’s communications director, referring to the Columbus event. “One of our goals as an organization is to really get involved with our community, and we thought this would be a great fit. Nurses are on the frontlines of healthcare, and it seems right to be on the forefront of healthcare education, too.”

Nurses are trusted by the public, and “it’s important for nurses and the public to have the correct information about what’s in the law,” Wenter says.

In Columbus, participants heard about the ins and outs of the new law and how Medicaid expansion in the state could impact them. Attendees were also offered free basic health screenings by ONA members.

Paula Anderson, a cardiac care nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, was one of four ONA nurses on hand to provide health screenings to community members. “I believe healthcare for all is very important, and it was good to see people take part and ask questions,” Anderson says. “People look to us for answers and guidance. I think making this a community effort is the best way to get those questions answered.”

In her remarks, Sen. Cafaro compared the law’s early imperfections to those that Social Security and Medicare faced when they were first unveiled. The senator emphasized the need to be patient, noting that it takes time to fine-tune something new. In the meantime, she said, the focus should be on the ACA’s benefits and promises, such as free preventative care and coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

“The United States is spending far more on healthcare, but we are not seeing results,” says Wenter, who believes the law’s preventative care provisions are a step in the right direction.

Wenter agrees that patience is a key. “As far as the ACA goes, it’s important to have the correct information going out. Any huge piece of legislation will have kinks in the beginning, but they will eventually work themselves out.”

During the event in New Jersey, HPAE’s Ann Twomey also emphasized the benefits of the ACA. “We all have seen the challenges with the website in its early stages, but we’ve already seen the opportunities of the ACA. If the ACA is going to succeed, it will take everyone—providers, advocates and patients—coming together. This is about connecting community leaders to hospitals to nurses, all for the benefit of our patients. It’s about putting care first.”