My Year with the Philadelphia Health Corps

As the end of the year approaches, I find that it becomes easier to indulge in a little introspection. Through my time with the program, the work demanded little room for such self-centeredness. Ultimately, my focus was on clinic patients and the basic struggles that they must live through every day. I joined the Corps to offer an underserved community a measure of peace, a small reprieve from ailing health and poverty. If, in that process, I somehow provided a measure of happiness as well, then that seemed enough for any kind of personal fulfillment.

But now it’s almost July, and I have unpacked my share of medication, and received my share of papercuts and phone calls. I have sat with countless patients at my desk, listened to their worries, and tried, with every good intention, to deliver on my promises. I have dug around our closet for medicine that would substitute the supply that arrives from the pharmaceutical company. I have swallowed frustration over missing faxes that would delay a crucial shipment. These experiences form a simple routine from a day to day perspective. However, taken as a summation of the year, I realize they are a profound privilege of what it feels like to take responsibility for another being’s life. These patients come as utter strangers, with unfamiliar backgrounds, cultures, and burdens. Yet, in the brief time that they are in my office, between handshake and signature, there exists an intimacy and a feeling of care. In these unequivocal moments, our lives – as advocate and patient – seem to touch.

For every form of appreciation I receive, I believe my own is, if not greater, then equal in comparison. I am grateful for this unique opportunity to deliver essential care. I am grateful for all that the Prescription Assistance Program has taught me. Most of all, I am grateful that I, from a complacent upbringing with no comprehension of daily hardship, where ordinary, fleeting pleasures seem brighter and somehow sweeter too, would be granted such life-affirming work.

Guiding Lights

With healthcare in the United States at a crossroads and the Affordable Care Act slated to be fully operational on the coming New Year’s Day, it is understandable that logistics be at the forefront of debate and reform, with jargon such as “subsidies”, “tax credits”, and “out-of-pocket premiums” bandied about among various media outlets. However, despite the great hopes and expectations of this overhaul decreasing health disparities in this country, there still looms the immense problem of having to explain to a populous of people how to fully utilize a complex system that some, unfortunately, will not even be eligible for.

Fortunately, there are people in healthcare whose main focus is still to provide superlative care to all those less fortunate and uninformed on health care policy. It is that inherent conviction of placing patient care above all else that has made my short tenure with the Philadelphia Department of Health a godsend. Serving as a patient advocate has given me the responsibility of ensuring that patients, who have no insurance and nowhere else to turn, receive the treatment that they need and the quality of life they desire. Without having to worry about triaging or calculating costs of medications and deductibles, I have been able to help people of all ages and demographics better enjoy their lives and give them the peace of mind that is often lost in the labyrinth of health systems. To say that I have a single favorite moment or that I am devoid of a bad day would be untrue, but I can say that all encounters bring with them fresh perspectives as well as varying levels of satisfaction in the knowledge that the services rendered have allowed people to enjoy the daily activities that most take for granted. Thus, by serving on the front lines in underserved areas and improving overall health and wellness, one patient and family at a time, the National Health Corps have made inroads towards healthier communities, and hopefully one day by extension, happiness for all.

Name: Stephen Veideman
Position: Patient Advocate at Health Center 6
Degree: Biology
Why did you join the health corps: To obtain a broader knowledge and deeper understanding of the nation’s healthcare system
Favorite thing about Philly: The location and size of the city

Say cheese...

Say cheese…

Experience Planning the “Covered with CHIP” Event

In addition to serving at my host site Health Center 5, the Service Committee and I have had the opportunity to organize service events for the PHC members. PHC has volunteered with a variety of nonprofit organizations, such as Philabundance, Sunday Suppers, the Philadelphia Zoo, and many others. We were also given the task of planning our own signature event that would take place on May 18th.

The Service Committee decided to help children in North Philadelphia get access to health insurance through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which allows any child under the age of 18 receive coverage regardless of his or her family’s income. In order to plan this event, we had to contact participating health companies and other exhibitors that would be of interest to our community. We had 13 organizations that came out and educated families on programs they would be eligible for. During our planning, we hoped to have 300 families attend, with a goal of enrolling as many children as possible into CHIP.

The day that we had been waiting for approached faster than we had expected. Amidst some of the chaos and the multiple tasks to complete, at the end of the day, I was happy that I had my Corps for support. Although the event was not as big as we had hoped, when I heard that two mothers had come running in, saying that they wanted to enroll their children in health insurance, it reinforced the reason why I wanted to serve in community health. I joined PHC thinking that I could change the world, but once I served in the health field, I realized that it takes baby steps to make an impact. This event made me realize that I cannot always expect the biggest results, but if I have helped change someone’s life for the better, then I have made the impact that I have always wanted.

Name: Chelsea Safran
Position: Patient Advocate at Health Center 5
Degree:
Biochemistry
Why did you join the health corps:
To experience the problems in healthcare first hand and find ways to overcome them while directly interacting with patients
Favorite thing about Philly: 
Rittenhouse square and public transportation

Front and center!

Front and center!

Listening

During my second week of Health Corps service, I found myself hitting the ground running, becoming immersed in the basics of home visiting. My site supervisor Sharon and I had just finished a visit with an overwhelmed, young mother of six kids with special needs. The newest addition to the family, a baby girl, had been having difficulty eating due to painful regurgitation. Her mother had spent the majority of our visit expressing to us her frustration with a doctor who wouldn’t listen to her when she said her daughter was in pain.

As we left the house, Sharon provided me with simple, yet essential advice: Listen to your patients.

These four words have served me well over the course of my service year. As a case manager, I am welcomed into the homes of people who are often voiceless in the face of greater systems: hospitals, welfare, insurance, school. I have the unique position of being independent of these; I am there to support and advocate for them as they gain confidence in their ability to take on the world. I am often the one person in their lives who will just sit, listen, and help as they try to make sense of their situations.

My experiences as an advocate, working with families both at home and in the community, will undoubtedly prove invaluable as I pursue a career as a physician. I’ve seen first-hand how easy it is for families to get overlooked, usually because they are not confident speaking up for themselves. I’ve seen how, when dealing with health care, we are not just the diseases or conditions we have, but rather a product of our environment and upbringing, both of which inform how we handle treatment. I’ve seen how it takes patience and understanding to reach the next level of partnership with my clients, the level where the underlying worries and motivations come to surface. These are all lessons I will carry with me when I start my medical school path in August.

I will listen.

Name: Claire Hartung
Position: Community Health Outreach Associate, La Salle Neighborhood Nursing Center
Degree: French and Francophone Studies, Carleton College ‘11
Why did you join the health corps: As a future physician, I wanted to gain experience in public health while serving my community.
Favorite thing about Philly: The music scene, and the food!

Claire blog pic

More Than Just an Advocate

Upon becoming a Patient Advocate with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, I understood that I would be helping uninsured patients apply for and receive medication at lower or no cost.  However, I did not realize that a patient advocate means much more to most patients.

On a Monday morning, I called my patient and explained to her that the Prescription Assistance Program could help her with her asthma medication.  “So, you’re saying I can get my inhaler for free?” I assured her she could.  “Wait, the expensive medication that helps me breathe better – I can get that for free?!” Once again, I assured her that I could help.   The sound of relief in her voice made me smile.

A couple days later, this same patient walked into my office.  As we were filling out the application together, she revealed how she has not had medical insurance for years and how her asthma has gotten worse.  She was frequenting the ER more and more as her inhalers were difficult to afford.  A couple weeks later, I enthusiastically notified her that her medication has arrived. As she came to pick up her inhalers that same day, I realized the true meaning of an advocate.

A patient advocate is someone that a patient can trust and rely upon.  An advocate can be the difference between going to the ER and staying healthy.  Seeing my patient smile, receiving her hugs, and hearing about her improved quality of life is the best reward for being a patient advocate.

Name: Reena Palanivel
Position: Patient Advocate at Health Center 3
Degree: Biology
Why did you join the Health Corps: I joined PHC because I wanted to gain experience in healthcare as well as serve an urban population.
Favorite thing about Philly: Philadelphia Eagles and the Ben Franklin Bridge

Hard at work!

Hard at work!

A Difference You Can Measure

Over the past few months of serving in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, I have interviewed hundreds of patients for Medical Insurance eligibility. Of these patients, the ones that stand out the most are the ones who know this benefit is available, but for some reason have had applications continually denied. In all cases, specific information is needed by the County Assistance Office to determine eligibility for Health Insurance. In most cases there has been a miscommunication in what information was needed, which results in a denied application. My position requires me to know the proper information needed and collect that from the patient. It is quite obvious from the start that some patients have been through this process before.

The process of applying for insurance takes approximately 6 weeks, and to have that wait end up with a denial is both frustrating and demoralizing for the parents of these children. This is particularly true for single parents with multiple children, which brings one specific case to mind. The single parent of three children who was also going to school while working two part time jobs came to me for assistance. She had already sent two separate applications to the County Assistance Office, but those applications were denied. After an interview I had her return the proper documentation, and submitted them on her behalf. After 6 weeks we received a letter that stated that the children were now enrolled in free medical insurance. The look of relief on that mother’s face was priceless. With so much on her plate I know that she now has one less thing to worry about.

Name: Joe Mortimer
Position:
Insurance Specialist, Health Center 10
Degree:
Exercise Science, University of Pittsburgh ‘12
Why did you join the Health Corps:
My career goal is to be a Physical Therapist; but I wanted experience in a different health related field. Learning about and working with health insurance is certainly something that will help me in the future no matter what career path I choose.
Favorite thing about Philly:
Being born and raised in this sports-loving, hardworking, blue collar city. I also love cheesesteaks and scrapple.