Covering the Community

Students spread the word about health-care changes
By Charles Buchanan • Photo by Steve Wood

Covering the Community

Photo of Ashleigh Staples and Chidinma Anakwenze in a Birmingham barber shop
Students spread the word about health-care changes
By Charles Buchanan • Photo by Steve Wood
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) generated plenty of talk around the country prior to its March 2014 enrollment deadline, but for a group of UAB students, some of the most important discussions took place in Birmingham beauty salons, churches, malls, and even car washes.

There, the students shared the facts about the ACA’s impact on health care and helped people enroll in affordable private insurance plans. They were part of Bama Covered, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization founded by Josh Carpenter, a 2010 alumnus of the UAB Collat School of Business, and his friend Daniel Liss. In fact, UAB students numbered more than 100 of the group’s nearly 700 college-student volunteers statewide.

Ashleigh Staples (pictured above, at left) faced the task of coordinating them all as UAB team captain, which required late nights after her political science classes in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Working with such enthusiastic peers made it easy,” says the junior from Alabaster, Ala., and Golden Excellence Scholarship winner. She also joined volunteers on the community walkabouts. Talking with strangers about their health care in various places was intimidating at first, she recalls. “I had to remind myself that what we had to say was valuable. We were armed with knowledge and resources that could potentially transform someone’s life.”

“One sixth of Alabama’s uninsured population lives in Jefferson County,” notes Chidinma Anakwenze (pictured above, at right), who says Bama Covered’s mission resonated with her. “Half of them are my age, or under 34, and 35 percent are minorities. That’s me.” The second-year UAB School of Medicine student and recipient of the Comer Foundation and Benjamin and Roberta Russell Medical scholarships, from Florence, Ala., helped recruit fellow student volunteers and spread the word about the ACA. The experience gave health-professional students a unique opportunity to learn more about the law’s impact on health- care access, she says. Many were eager to “step outside their comfort zones and learn more about people” in the community.

Facts and Families

The students encountered more  misinformation about the ACA and health insurance than resistance to it, Staples says. “The majority we spoke with thought the ACA was government-provided health insurance,” she notes, and “some did not think the deadline applied to them because they thought Alabama had opted out of the ACA. It was important to remove politics from the conversation. We needed people to see the facts so that we could help them make the best choice for themselves and their families.”

The student volunteers connected the people they met with community partners who could help them enroll in a plan—though some, including Staples, received training from the Department of Health and Human Services to complete the task themselves. That gave Staples some rewarding moments. “Many people had never been able to afford any type of insurance before,” she says.

The volunteers also gained something from the experience, Anakwenze says. “I learned how much I didn’t know,” she explains. “I’ve always seen myself working with underserved communities and in advocacy and education. Bama Covered gave me a broader picture of disparities in medicine in the United States.”

Carpenter, who says he cofounded Bama Covered because “there were not enough objective sources of information about the ACA for the folks who needed it most,” notes that nearly 95,000 Alabamians obtained health insurance before the deadline. The group “certainly played a role in generating that figure,” he says. “UAB students rejected the popular myth that young people need to wait until after they finish college to apply their knowledge and impact the world around them.”