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New direct access health care program begins enrolling Cook County residents

Monday, April 17, 2017
Daily Northwestern
by Zoe Miller

Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune/TNS


Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Cook County commissioner Bridget Gainer speaks at a meeting in 2012. Gainer supported a new direct health care program geared toward uninsured residents.

Zoe Miller, Reporter
April 17, 2017

The direct access health care program, which was unanimously approved as an ordinance by Cook County commissioners in September, began in March. A direct access program is a type of health care program that establishes a network of centers that enrollees can use without paying initial fees.

The program was first proposed to the county by Healthy Communities Cook County, a group of healthcare organizations that advocates for improved healthcare access for uninsured residents. Cook County commissioners Bridget Gainer, Jesus Garcia and Robert Steele supported the program.

The program was established to help uninsured, low-income residents of Cook County obtain more affordable care, said Micaela Vargas, Gainer’s chief of staff. Often, she said, uninsured, low-income residents live in the U.S. without documentation and therefore do not qualify for the Affordable Care Act — an Obama-era bill that aimed to expand American healthcare.

Paradoxically, when uninsured people avoid health care because of cost, they end up being forced to pay more in the form of hospital visits, which are more expensive than other types of care, Vargas said.

Even if patients have no insurance, the Cook County health and hospital system is required to take in all patients in its emergency rooms, Vargas said. She added that emergency room services are often the most expensive care options.

“A lot of times, if you don’t have insurance, you’ll kind of wait and wait until your health deteriorates enough that you just have to go into the emergency room,” Vargas said.

Cook County Health and Hospitals System hospitals and clinics all offer free care under the program. The program also assigns a primary care provider and a list of available medical resources.

In addition, the program coordinates medical care so people can take advantage of care that’s already available to them. It also tracks a patient’s medical history and assigns staff to follow up with them afterward.

“People don’t know how to get the care that they need,” said Phoebe Flaherty, a member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an organization that helped petition the County to institute the program.

Organizing clients’ medical care, Flaherty said, could help them obtain care they would not otherwise receive and minimize costs.

“They’re being told that they’re not eligible for financial assistance when they in fact are,” Flaherty said. “People have access to resources, theoretically, but are not physically able to actually access those resources.”

In the future, Vargas said officials hope to further expand the program. She said the current iteration of the program is the first of several phases that have been planned.


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