March 18, 2014 , BY Matt Hughes

Prof. Carl Milofsky, sociology (R), and Director of Place Studies Brandn Green began the initiative to provide student aid in navigating the Affordable Care Act.

With only a few weeks remaining before the Affordable Care Act's March 31 enrollment deadline, Bucknell students are pitching in to help uninsured Americans seeking coverage through the federal exchange website sign up.

A total of 19 students and four professors (Carl Milofsky, sociology; Brandn Green, sociology; Neil Boyd, management, and Eric Martin, management) have been accredited as certified application counselors through the Columbia County Volunteers in Medicine Free Clinic and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, enabling them to provide one-on-one assistance in signing up for health insurance on the federal health exchange website.

Green and Milofsky have also been certified by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) to give presentations explaining the act and the enrollment process to groups.

Each week, students spend several hours helping health-care seekers enroll through the federal exchange website, healthcare.gov, in community settings like the Volunteers in Medicine Free Clinic in Mifflinville and The Public Library for Union County in Lewisburg.

Certified application counselor and Bucknell senior Gia Ciccolo said healthcare.gov has proven as challenging to use as media commentators have made it out to be, and she believes the help she and her classmates are providing is needed.

Ciccolo has aided only one family enroll for insurance thus far, but she said that process took five hours and required several calls to the website's customer service line.

"What we're learning is that it's not that easy, even if you're good with computers," she said. PHAN Director Antoinette Kraus said Bucknell may be the first university in Pennsylvania to actively aid students in becoming certified application counselors.

PHAN is helping students gain certification at two additional institutions, Shippensburg University and Dickinson College, and Kraus said those efforts were inspired by Bucknell.

"In Pennsylvania, Bucknell is leading the way in working with students to increase on-the-ground enrollment capacity in rural communities," Kraus said. "We are excited to hear the results at the end of this open-enrollment period." Milofsky said he also is working with colleagues at Bloomsburg University to create a program based on Bucknell's organizational model.  

Their efforts are in demand locally and throughout rural Pennsylvania, Milofsky and Green said. As many as 250,000 central Pennsylvania residents may be eligible to buy insurance on the exchanges, Milofsky said, but organizations in the area have done little to aid or advertise the exchange rollout.

Pennsylvania spent a total of $2 million to advertise sign-up opportunities, Green added, all of which went to groups in the state's major cities. Oregon, by contrast, spent $14 million on statewide television advertisements alone.

"Rural areas are often forgotten and overlooked segments of the American landscape," said Green, director of the Place Studies Initiative. "The ACA rollout in central Pennsylvania has followed that pattern."

Political challenges and the glitches suffered by the exchange website have also made many Americans averse to learning more about the law, Milofsky said, making the students' efforts all the more important.

"We mostly look at survey data, and the main thing is that people just have absolutely no idea what's going on," he said. "It's extremely complicated, and you have all of the political conflict going on around it which makes people just not want to deal with it. And because of that they're not getting information."

Milofsky and Green believe their students can learn from face-to-face engagement with residents of surrounding communities, and have given student application counselors the chance to conduct field research and earn course credit through their work. Eight students have enrolled in SOCI 351: Field Research in Sociology, and are recording field notes about their work in preparation for a final project report.

"This provides us an opportunity to research a fundamental change to social welfare in the U.S., to strengthen our relationship with community agencies working on health and to expose students to the nature of the health care system in a novel way," Milofsky said.

To further larger research projects, the students will also conduct follow-up interviews with clients and host focus group discussions with private insurance agents working to enroll individuals through the exchanges.

Ciccolo is one of the students earning credit for her work. She said the experience has already opened her eyes to difficulties faced by many in rural central Pennsylvania. "I'm from Boston, so I know about urban health problems, but I didn't realize the different issues that people in rural areas run into, like not having access to health care because they live so far away from providers," Ciccolo said.

Millions of Americans will surely remain without health insurance after the March 31 deadline to enroll for Obamacare without financial penalty, and the need for assistance in surrounding communities is unlikely to abate any time soon. Milofsky, Green, Boyd and Martin hope to make enrollment assistance an annual activity, similar to the aid accounting students provide citizens in filling out their income taxes.

"It has been striking to me how many students have wanted to participate outside of the class structure," Green said. "They think it's important and interesting work."

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