It was a wonderful day for a health fair, I recall thinking, one of those gorgeous spring days in Los Angeles, with blue skies and white puffy clouds. This would be my third health fair since coming from Pittsburgh to UCLA as a medical student. Like the two previous fairs, I would be in charge of registering patients and recording vitals. I remember one young man and his family in particular. He was funny and joked about how my blood-pressure cuff wouldn’t be able to fit around his bicep, which was enormous. Well, it ended up fitting, and when I looked down at the reading, I was shocked. Being the naïve first-year medical student that I was, I automatically assumed I had done something wrong and quickly switched arms to take a repeat reading. Sure enough, the reading was almost identical to the first — 168/107.
“How’s my pressure, doc?” he asked. Although I had already explained to him that I’m just a medical student, if you have a white coat, no matter how short or long it is, patients nearly always call you doctor. I didn’t know how to respond to his question. As medical students, we aren’t able to give diagnoses or tell someone he or she has hypertension, although this man clearly did. I played it safe and said that his blood pressure might be high and that he should definitely talk about it with the doctor. I continued to talk with the man and found out that he hadn’t seen a physician in six years, other than at the occasional health fair, and was uninsured. I told him that he really needed to see a primary-care provider at least once (possibly more) per year. We went back and forth talking about the cost of health insurance, of seeing a doctor, of medication, and he always ended saying, “Besides, I’m too good-looking to get sick.” This man really was funny, in a graveyard-humor sort of way. Later that night, I couldn’t help but feel saddened by our encounter. This man clearly needed help, and I couldn’t do anything more than tell him that he should get it.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about our healthcare system and even less about how health insurance works. I knew I had health insurance and that if I wanted to see my doctor, it costs $10 to do so, but that was about it. There is so much material to cover in the first two years of medical school, that it becomes almost impossible to squeeze in things like U.S. Healthcare 101. Many of us go through our first years of medical training without ever understanding the terms deductible, copayment and coinsurance.
For the remainder of the academic year and the summer, I tried to learn as much as I could about our healthcare system. I learned about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and by the start of my second year, I knew that I wanted to be part of the movement to sign up people for affordable health insurance. I joined with two other like-minded medical students, Jeffrey Fujimoto and Brandon Scott, and along with Dr. Dylan Roby from the UCLA Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health as our faculty mentor, we created Connecting Californians to Care (CCTC).
We conceived CCTC for the purpose of providing outreach, enrollment assistance and education about healthcare opportunities that were made available by the ACA. We partnered with USC and various certified-enrollment entities, such as the Saban Community Clinic and the Venice Family Clinic, and soon became a diverse organization of more than 200 medical and public-health students across Southern California. Creating the organization wasn’t easy. Jeff, Brandon, Dr. Roby and I had many late-night phone conversations as we tried to structure CCTC, create training materials for our members and find other organizations to take us on as certified-enrollment counselors, so we could better help people navigate California’s healthcare marketplace, Covered California. After countless meetings, e-mails and training sessions, we were finally ready to go out into the community and help people link up with healthcare. Throughout the first part of my second year as a medical student, we did just that and were able to assist hundreds of people in understanding the ACA and obtaining health insurance.
Caleb Wilson is a second-year student in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and an MBA candidate in the dual-degree UCLA PRIME Program.
Photo: Courtesy of Caleb Wilson
Now when I go to health fairs on behalf of CCTC, I’m no longer in charge of registering patients and taking their vitals. Instead, I sit at another table with a sign that reads Sign up for Health Insurance through Obamacare, and I meet patients with the goal of connecting them to a steady source of care. The conversations I have now differ greatly from the one I had as a first-year medical student dealing with the funny man who possibly had stage 2 hypertension. It’s a good feeling to be able to help someone obtain health insurance, and it provides some peace of mind and intrinsic satisfaction that what I’m doing is making a difference.
There are still times, however, when I meet with an undocumented immigrant, who, due to residency status, can’t purchase insurance through the health-insurance marketplace, or someone else, who, even with the federally provided premium subsidies, still can’t afford health insurance. I sympathize with these patients and try to help them the best I can. I don’t understand why obtaining access to healthcare has to be so complicated. It makes me wonder about possibly having a national healthcare system like in some other countries, where everyone is born with health insurance. After all, we are born with the right to an education, why shouldn’t we also have the right to healthcare?