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Creighton social work students talk with ACA CEO

Creighton University social work students converse via a live link with Kevin Counihan, CEO of healthcare.gov.On Jan. 21, with 10 days to go before the conclusion of the latest Affordable Care Act open enrollment period, 10 social work students from Creighton University sat in a room below the Reinert Alumni Library and took part in a discussion on the importance of having health insurance in the ever-unpredictable world.

A few of the students have spent the last month as certified application counselors at community health organizations around Omaha, helping people enroll in ACA-subsidized insurance plans as part of a collaboration with Enroll America, a nonprofit dedicated to making sure everyone gets health coverage and whose Southwest Regional manager is Emily Sutton, a 2007 Creighton graduate in social work. Juniors in the Social Work Program have also been at Creighton’s Porto Clinic, working with some of the community’s most vulnerable populations to explain the ACA and connecting uninsured people to certified application counselors.

Traveling in her expansive region, extending from Wisconsin to Wyoming and also including Hawaii, Sutton was curious about what the student assisters were encountering and how they were carrying forward the message of health insurance’s importance.

Sutton’s Jan. 21 visit coincided with National Youth Enrollment Day for the ACA and, as an added bonus, the students were joined, via a live video link, by Kevin Counihan, the CEO of healthcare.gov — the man in charge of seeing the nation reach the goal of total health insurance coverage.

After a brief introduction, Counihan entertained questions from the students and their professors, and he also made a point of thanking them for the work they are doing as assisters in the enrollment period.

“This makes a permanent difference in people’s lives,” Counihan said. “People who become insured get better health care than people who remain uninsured. The type of one-on-one assistance you are giving is hugely encouraging to people.”

In talking with Counihan, several students related their experiences of assisting uninsured people find health care plans. An oft-voiced concern dealt with the challenge of educating potential enrollees on what can be a complicated process.

“A lot of people won’t do it unless someone sits down with them and takes them through it, step by step,” said Isabella Gerundio, a senior social work major who helped with ACA enrollment at the Charles Drew Health Center and the Heart Ministry Center.

Counihan told the students they were not alone in facing those challenges. He said assisters and navigators “are absolutely integral” to helping people understand what they need in a health insurance plan and how they subsequently use the plan.

Even after purchase, he said, many newly insured still have questions about how to see a primary care provider or how a visit to the emergency room works.

That especially holds true for young people enrolling in the ACA and Sutton encouraged the students to be mindful of their own health insurance needs as a way to identify with those they are helping.

“As you’re talking with your clients about the importance of health insurance, I’m sure you’re finding more and more reasons why it’s essential in the world today,” Sutton said. “We’ve got to make it work. We’ve got to know why it’s important. That’s what will help us best direct our clients to plans that work for them and understanding why they need health insurance.”

Following their conversation with Counihan, students continued to ask Sutton questions about the ACA, its implementation, its functioning, even its future as the 2016 presidential election heats up and several candidates have targeted the program for elimination.

“I have seen this program help so many people and it was incredible being able to talk to the person in charge of implementing it,” Gerundio said. “I have personally seen the hard work the students from the social work department here at Creighton do in order to better serve as many people as we can in healthcare and it was great seeing our students and professors get recognized for the amazing hard work they do trying to implement this for everyone.”

Barbara Harris, Ph.D., director for the Social Work Program at Creighton, said as the ACA continues to gain traction, Creighton’s social work students and graduates are seeking more exposure to it and looking for best practices to help people navigate the waters of finding the best insurance plan for themselves and their families.

“We’re integrating (ACA enrollment practices) into the curriculum more and more because we think it’s an essential part of social work practice,” Harris said. “Social workers are out front in making sure the program works. We know people need health insurance and we’re doing what we can to help them find it.”

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