Catholic clinic workers in Delta praise health reforms

DUMAS — Health care workers affiliated with two Catholic health clinics in the Delta are praising the Affordable Care Act and Arkansas’ private option plan for reaching poor people in the area. Daughters of Charity Services of Arkansas operates the clinics in Dumas and Gould as part of Ascension Health.

“It’s been a tremendous help,” said Kathryn Musholt, president and CEO. “It’s the right thing, it’s what we should be doing. There are a lot of people here who are good people with circumstances or whatever who just couldn’t afford insurance.”

The organization has quickly gained a reputation in the area as the go-to resource for people wanting to learn about their eligibility under the new laws, apply for coverage or get help in moving a pending application forward. Its reputation is so far-reaching, in fact, that non-patients have driven hours just to be seen by the clinic’s “navigators,” staffers who have been certified by the federal government to provide such services.

“As near as I can tell we’re the only ones in this area signing people up now,” she said.

Navigators undergo substantial training en route to certification — currently 20-plus hours of course work and exams, annually — which helps explain why there’s a lack of such personnel available. It’s also a big reason why with just two individuals currently certified (a third is nearly online), the Daughters of Charity operation has signed up more than 600 people.

Maribel Zuniga, who works at the DePaul Health Center in Dumas, is one such person. 

“At first there were people who were afraid of it,” she said. “Some of these people have never had insurance so it was like what’s going to happen, I don’t want to stop seeing this provider. Or am I having to move to go someplace and what about transportation? It was one of their worries at first. You mean I have to take my prescription to the pharmacy and get my own medicine? You’re not going to order it for me?”

Often, she finds herself handling issues of a much more fundamental nature. To someone who’s never had insurance, terms like deductible, co-pay and monthly premium seem from another language. The same goes for basic computer skills, considering for people in this income bracket technology is far down the priorities list.

“They had never heard of making a password. You know, the terminology was very scary for some of them,” Zuniga said. “We do have a lot of older patients that, no, they’re scared to touch the computer.”

The Mexican-born, bilingual Zuniga’s bubbly personality and quick smile belies the fact that helping clients means a good deal of time wrestling faulty government websites and stumping federal help desk workers. She said the process is a lot better than it was and such hiccups shouldn’t condemn the entire program anyway. Not only does it help pay the bills, but as she’s seen firsthand, often gives people a sense of worth.

“There are some people, they feel proud that I can come here and I can pay, it’s not free,” she said. “A lot of people do like free stuff but a lot of people, they’re like, no, I’m embarrassed to go and get it free. I want to pay something.”

Musholt said wider access to insurance hasn’t necessarily increased the patient traffic at the two clinics. In fact, in the cruelest of ironies, helping people gain coverage exposes the organization to increased risk of losing them to other providers.

The  U.S. bishops supported the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to provide health coverage for all Americans, but believe it has serious flaws when it comes to the treatment of abortion, conscience rights and fairness to immigrants.

Arkansas’ private option has been supported by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and Catholic Charities of Arkansas to expand Medicaid for those whose incomes do not exceed 138 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The political firestorm that continues to surround the Affordable Care Act, as well as the intensifying ongoing debate over immigration, lurks on the periphery of these programs and services. For Musholt, though, marching orders are simple: See something that needs doing and do it. 

“I try to keep an open mind, but I have difficulty understanding why the debate keeps going on,” she said. “(Health insurance programs have) served a great many people. They’re very proud to have it, they certainly haven’t abused it and it helps pay for the care. It helps us to do what we came here to do.

“The only negatives I ever hear are from politicians, to be honest with you. What the people say is, ‘We’re glad you’re here. Thank you for taking care of everybody.’”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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