Back for more already? This week we are giving you an inside look at the personal stories behind our new Consumer Assistance Program in anticipation of Colorado Gives Day. You can check out the profiles of Stephanie Arenales, the Consumer Assistance Program Manager and Cynthia Wadle, our Director of Finance and Operations here, and then continue on to our Colorado Gives Day profile to schedule a donation to our program!
Stephanie: I’ve known about CCHI for a long time, and as I was searching for a job I had a couple of organizations in mind, CCHI being one of them. When I saw this opportunity, I thought “that’s really where I want to be”. It’s a little bit of a move outside of the work I’d done previously with focusing particularly on Medicaid and Connect for Health Colorado eligibility and enrollment. But it really seemed like it was up my alley in terms of program development, and I was really excited to see this program getting up and running, because in my experience in my prior work I had seen the challenges people were facing in trying to navigate health care systems, billing, and claims, so it just seemed like it dropped out of the sky and that it was the perfect opportunity at the perfect time, in an organization that I respect and really admire. It was very serendipitous.
What are some of your long term goals for the CAP program?
Stephanie: My goal is to understand the breadth of issues that people face. Everyday it seems like there is something new that comes through the door and every day I’m shocked by the latest problem that somebody is having. It reinforces how complex, how difficult, and how many barriers people face as they are trying to navigate health systems. When you throw in on top of that the fact that you are often sick when you are trying to deal with this stuff, it’s expecting a lot of the consumer to navigate it on their own. It’s certainly not easy. If you don’t feel well on top of that, it’s no wonder that people wait six months before they start tackling all of these bills coming in. That just makes it all the harder because the longer you wait the harder it gets.
Do you identify as an advocate in this role?
Stephanie: Absolutely. There are different kinds of advocacy. There is the big picture advocacy that we do in the policy and regulatory sphere, and then there’s direct client assistance, which is the direct client advocacy that we do. What I love about this job is that it marries the two. We’re providing individual assistance to people as they are trying to chunk through all of these challenges that they are having, and that is feeding the policy and regulatory agenda, which is great. It’s something that I’ve always had a goal of being able to do in other positions but didn’t have the space to do. Here, that’s part of the job, which is really gratifying and meaningful to me.
It’ll be so cool to have the same conversation in 5 years! How did you develop the skills to do this type of direct advocacy?
Stephanie: I learned by doing. I can identify with that confusion in trying to navigate systems. I dealt with a family situation where somebody was seriously injured and had to navigate that as a much less experienced person without any sort of exposure or understanding of what I was dealing with. So I draw on that experience to help people through things and I think it gives me some empathy. I think we’ve all been there at some point or another and can draw on that kind of empathy to help somebody work through these challenges. My goal is really around helping people learn how to do it on their own, because it’s empowering and it helps people develop self-efficacy and the skills to do it on their own next time around.
Were there any people who helped you through that who you model yourself after?
Stephanie: I was connected with a community health center when my kids were little, and was on the board as well. Watching the the medical director was inspiring to me and I think of her as a role model. She treats people with so much respect and acknowledges their ability to do things on their own while taking care of them simultaneously. She’s an influence on me for sure.
Does this kind of advocacy work get your mind thinking about other issues outside of healthcare in a certain way? Does it put a lens on how you see the world?
Stephanie: This work is all about the social determinants of health. I think that healthcare is the foot in the door towards this whole other world. Because everybody at some point is going to touch the health care system, and it’s an opportunity to let people know what else is available to help them out. People might need all kinds of help and so if you can provide them with the whole toolkit when they come in for health services, or health care enrollment, or help with a bill, it’s the greatest opportunity to get them all situated. Self-sufficiency is the goal but people just need the tools to get there. Figuring out what’s out there and how to access it and how to speak the language and how to follow the map, once you have that you’re pretty much set.
What’s something that keeps you hopeful and motivated?
Stephanie: I’m really thankful to be working here with a group of people who are so smart and dedicated and energetic and enthusiastic about the work that they’re doing.The office environment is so positive, and I so appreciate that. Everybody is willing to take the random question. No question is too stupid. This work is hard and there are some cases where you feel like you wanna just crawl under your desk, but there’s always somebody to talk to about it or it’s okay to go take a walk around the block. Which is important. Direct client work is hard sometimes, and not letting it overwhelm you to the point where you can’t do something about it is important.
Is there anything that you’ve seen in the advocacy space that makes you hopeful?
Stephanie: What excites me generally is being able to say, for example, to Adela: “Can we do something about this?” and Adela says “Sure!” That’s really exciting. To have the support of a policy and advocacy team that can take those problems that we find and actually turn it into actionable change, it’s very exciting.
Why should people support our work?
Stephanie: CCHI brings a unique mix to the table in that we are providing the added value of being able to translate the experiences of our clients through the Consumer Assistance Program into actionable policy and regulatory proposals and changes.
Cynthia: Backseat driver and cheerleader probably describe my niche. As Director of Finance and Operations, I do everything from watering the plants to analyzing our financial statements. I’ve worked at CCHI for almost 4 years and have learned so much about health policy and what it means to be an advocate. It can be daunting to get calls from consumers who are dealing with barriers such as an out of network bill from a hospital or freestanding emergency room. Our Consumer Assistance Program can provide resources or assist in writing an appeal so these bills don’t go to collections. Our strategic engagement department can share stories collected through the Consumer Assistance program so other consumers are aware of issues like out of network hospital billing practices, or skyrocketing drug prices. These stories shape our policy priorities to work on more robust protections for consumers by passing bills at the state legislature or advocating for tougher regulations at the Division of Insurance. And me, I’m in the background doing the accounting and budgeting, hiring staff, ordering supplies or attending a 9 Health Fair or rally for Protecting Our Care. I support our staff by asking questions, making sure we have the right staff, and that they have what they need for CCHI reach our vision that all Coloradans have equitable access to affordable, high-quality health care.
How is your work related to advocacy?
Cynthia: When I started at CCHI I realized there was so much more to know about health policy. It was a steep learning curve and I’m still learning! I am surprised how many people have insurance but are still experiencing barriers to getting the care they need, and getting medical bills they don’t even owe! I began to talk to my friends and neighbors and attend community meetings about these issues. I also started attending rallies CCHI was organizing to Protect Our care from federal attacks on the Affordable Care Act after the 2016 presidential election. Through these experiences, my passion for Coloradans’ health access and affordability began to grow. In the meantime, I was answering phone calls from people who needed help negotiating their medical bills, or who needed help navigating their health insurance. We had an idea to start a Consumer Assistance Program to fill the need for Coloradans to get help with their health insurance and medical bills. Hearing about issues consumers are having with their health insurance and medical bills brings me frustration and anger, but having capacity to help them inspires me, and knowing that CCHI is working to solve these issues at the state capitol and at the Division of insurance brings me hope.
Would you consider yourself an advocate?
Cynthia: I became a health advocate soon after starting to work at CCHI. It is clear that the Affordable Care Act has allowed more people than ever the opportunity to have health coverage, something my own family struggled and many times fell short of having when I was growing up. But, hospitals, insurance companies and drug companies are businesses. Businesses that drive profits. With more people accessing care through their health coverage options, these businesses work to find loopholes to grow their profit margins and fill stockholder pocketbooks. We are left with consumers choosing to take their life sustaining medications, or pay their rent due to skyrocketing prices. We are left with consumers getting bills from emergency room doctors or anesthesiologists they never met, finding out they have a bill in collections or a lien on their home. We are left with people going to free standing emergency rooms for stitches and walking away with $1,200 facility fees their insurance company refuses to pay. Until these loopholes get closed and until everyone has equitable access to affordable care, I will be an advocate.
How does being an advocate impact your personal or professional goals?
Cynthia: Doing the bookkeeping, presenting at a board meeting or hiring a new fellow, I am supporting an organization that is making an impact. CCHI not only engages, but helps consumers and through that process, we learn what consumers are struggling with and collect stories: like the time at the doctor’s office they were told their Medicaid was dropped, or when they went to buy a car and found out their credit score was too low to get a loan due to a medical bill from 2 years ago. These are real issues people are dealing with, and I’m referring to people who are sick or maybe dealing with a chronic illness. As a CPA and Human Resource Professional, I have many workplace opportunities, but my work at CCHI has the potential to help so many Coloradans to have the protections and avenues to live their healthiest life. CCHI is able to pinpoint health care concerns that people have, and work towards solutions to turn those around. We’ve already done so much on access to care with the ACA, but there’s so much more work to do, work that motivates me personally and professionally.
Is there something that brought you here?
Cynthia: Before I started I had just completed a mini, MBA-type of leadership course, requiring students to do a project at their current workplace. Most of the students successfully finished the project and after graduation moved on to another nonprofit to bring their learned experiences to another workplace, and that’s exactly what I did as well. I had set up a night-watch (respite) program at Anchor Center for Blind Children, where I had worked for 14 years. Many times parents of children with vision impairments cannot find qualified babysitters. The program I started brings in nurses from Denver School of Nursing to watch the children one Friday night a month. The nurses get resident hours and some education about working with children who have disabilities, and the parents get a worry free night out! The program is still going on today, four years later! After implementing the Anchor Center Night Watch program I was looking for a position at another nonprofit where I could be a leader, and bring passion to a new mission. I was intrigued by CCHI’s work, and especially interested in their story collection.
What’s something you’re proud of?
Cynthia: I’m most proud of implementing and overseeing the Consumer Assistance Program. It’s really what I wanted to do when I came here, which was to start a program. Now when consumers call, we have designated people with expertise to help them. With the data and metrics from the assistance program, and that relationship with consumers, and can offer them training to become their own advocate and for some, learn how to be an advocate for change at the legislature or the Division of Insurance. And, we can introduce consumers who have experienced issues with their health coverage to decision-makers in their own communities so these stories become real, personal and a priority for them to support needed changes.
Was there anything in your life with health care before any of this that looking back seems formative?
Cynthia: When I was 12, my sister was born with a vision impairment. She ended up having seven surgeries on her eye before her first birthday. At this impressionable age, I knew then I wanted to help people experiencing these types of issues. Working at Anchor Center for Blind Children, I helped families who also had children with vision impairments. And, I learned how much people were struggling to get health care if they had a child with a vision impairment, a child with a pre-existing condition. Passage of the ACA did a lot to help those families get health coverage. And now, my work at CCHI still centers around helping families have access to affordable, valuable health care.
Why should folks donate to CCHI?
Cynthia: When someone has a health emergency, or are chronically sick, they deserve to get the care and medicine they need and not have to worry about how they will pay it, or if their insurance will cover it. On December 4th, Colorado Gives Day, donors will have many amazing programs to support. But, I hope that they choose CCHI because more people than ever before are experiencing issues with the cost of health insurance, prescription drugs costs and out-of-network medical bills. CCHI is not only directly helping people who are sick or who have been sick, we’re also letting people know what issues they are experiencing, and taking those stories directly to people who can solve these problems for everyone.
Thanks for taking some time to read! Now you can head over to our Colorado Gives Day profile to schedule your donation!