Enrolling at SF State? There’s help, even for health care

As Summer 2014 Orientation gets into full swing at San Francisco State University, incoming students face a sometimes challenging set of decisions about classes and schedules and finances. One of them is sure to be about health insurance.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, which took effect this year, young adults can continue to be covered by their parents’ insurance until they turn 26. For many SF State students, that means at some point they might have to have “the talk” with the folks: “Should I stay on your health coverage, or do you want me to be independent for 2014?”

Aimée Williams and Oriana Reyes holding banner

Aimée Williams, SF State’s certified enrollment counselor at left, and Oriana Reyes show off their outreach banner.

This is the beginning of an often frustrating process, according to Aimée Williams, lead health educator at Student Health Services and a certified enrollment counselor for Covered California, the state health-insurance marketplace. SF State is unique among the California State University campuses in being an enrollment entity for Covered California.

“I figured it was something important,” Williams said of being able to answer the inevitable questions that arise on health coverage. “The easiest way is to talk to someone face to face on campus.” Such health-care outreach and enrollment work at SF State was instrumental in reducing the number of uninsured students on CSU campuses by 60%, showing that so-called “young invincibles” can and will buy insurance once they can easily get it.

Back in her high-school days, Williams realized that her peers lacked basic information about health and well-being. While completing undergraduate studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “I fell in love with this aspect of health and didn’t know what I could do with it,” she recalled. In short order she found out, getting her master’s degree in community health sciences at UCLA in 2010, as well as becoming a certified health-education specialist. Flash-forward to mid-2013, and Williams lands at SF State’s Student Health Services, with the enrollment window for so-called “Obamacare” soon to open in the fall.

Her team set up a workshop and did some outreach, including tabling and class presentations; Williams completed her enrollment-counselor training and received her enrollment certification in December. Then the calls started. “One day I came in and there were 13 messages on my phone” about signing up for Covered California, she said. As students had been applying, some were getting confusing letters back saying they weren’t eligible for subsidies. Others said they’d been stymied trying to upload materials.

The counselor training she had “didn’t prep you for a college application,” Williams explained, referring to the struggles of students enrolling for the first time. “People come in but don’t have all their documents -- dependent, independent, if you have a green card or a visa, lots of nuances. … How do scholarships and grants apply?”

As demand for help ran high and the deadline for enrollment was extended, one-to-one appointments were not sufficient and the health educators had to brainstorm. In March, they rented a computer room in the library to do a sort of triage: While as many as 30 students logged on themselves, Williams and her intern Oriana Reyes fielded multiple queries and worked the telephone-support lines for the ones they couldn’t answer.

“We realized most students could do 80% of enrollment on their own” with 20% of it stalled by issues and questions, said Reyes, a health-education major who graduated in May. “The goal was to maximize assistance with only one certified enrollment counselor.”

For Orientation, Williams is back to tabling and looking forward to participating in a few talks ahead of the new sign-up period. “We helped a lot of students,” she said. “We helped students get whole families enrolled.”

-- Anthony Lazarus