The volunteer army in the Affordable Care Act enrollment effort included two older women stationed regularly at a Macon Kmart.
Sister Joan Serda and Cecelia Smaha, a layperson associate of the Sisters of Mercy, talked to hundreds of local residents about the health care law in the months leading up to Monday’s enrollment deadline.
The two say they volunteered for the Get Covered America campaign because their organization’s mission includes helping people living in poverty who lack education and health care.
“I feel terrible that so many people don’t get health care,’’ said Serda, 76, who has been a nun since 1956. She’s a retired educator, so the role of informing people about their insurance choices was a natural fit.
She and Smaha set up a table at Kmart, answering questions about the ACA and talking about coverage, and gathering names of people who wanted further help. They also did education sessions at local Catholic parishes.
James Ramirez, the Get Covered America official who oversees Macon, says Serda and Smaha made a huge impact in the education effort.
“They are probably the most passionate, dedicated people I have seen in my experience, willing to sacrifice their time and energy to make the world a better place,’’ he says. “There is no way we could have made this much impact in Macon without their help.”
Hours after the midnight Monday deadline for sign-ups, the White House announced Tuesday that more than 7 million Americans were enrolled in the health insurance exchanges.
The two Macon women didn’t help people sign up directly. They were not “navigators,’’ specially trained counselors hired to help people enroll in the insurance exchange.
Divisions among Catholics
Still, they say, there was a lot of education to be done about the complicated law, which has many critics and is not well understood by many Americans. The state’s Republican political leadership remains united against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The hardest thing to explain to opponents of the law was that the ACA helped the working poor, Smaha says.
“This is not a freebie,’’ says Smaha, 71, who has been a lay associate of the religious order since 2000. “Some people [signing up] had two or three part-time jobs.’’
None of the ACA opponents who talked to them were “really rude,’’ Serda says.
“We had a few people who came to us and discussed their opinions,’’ she adds. The two say they acknowledged to the skeptics that the ACA isn’t perfect, that it could be improved. “No one was ugly’’ in the way they disagreed, Serda says.
Some of the law’s provisions have been opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group set out a position that supported the expanding of insurance coverage to millions of Americans. But the bishops also opposed final passage of the ACA because of concern that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion.
The bishops also oppose the ACA requirement to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives. A Catholic religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor, has fought in court against a contraception coverage mandate for people it employs.
A spokeswoman for the bishops noted Wednesday that while they have opposed certain provisions of the ACA, they have not joined in efforts to repeal the law.
Serda and Smaha do not appear overly concerned about these stands by the bishops and some other Catholics. Their order, the Sisters of Mercy, on their website said they supported the passage of the ACA out of a conviction that people have a right to health care.
Two outspoken women
Serda and Smaha say their biggest challenge was not having a navigator at Kmart to help people apply for coverage. Kmart didn’t allow it, they say. “We would have gotten a lot more people,’’ Serda says.
A spokeswoman for the company said in an email to GHN that the role of the insurance navigator is to help consumers prepare electronic and paper applications and enroll in coverage.
“This may have been why the navigator was not able to assist,’’ the spokeswoman said. “No computers were on site nor were any enrollments being processed.’’
The two women say they’re unhappy with the decision by Gov. Nathan Deal not to expand Georgia’s Medicaid program. Expansion of Medicaid is outlined under the ACA but is optional for states, and several are not doing it. Deal, backed by fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly, says Georgia can’t afford to do it.
If Medicaid expansion were carried out, it would extend coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Georgians, who are making below 100 percent of the federal poverty level but don’t qualify for subsidies in the insurance exchange.
“So many people have been caught in the gap,’’ with neither Medicaid nor subsidies, Smaha says.
The two women don’t know how many of the people they talked to eventually enrolled in coverage.
“I think it was worthwhile because we helped some people,’’ Serda says.
Ramirez of Get Covered America has a stronger view. He says Serda and Smaha “have been central to our success statewide, but definitely in Macon.”