Know Your Stuff

Navigating the Health Care System
 By Emma Whitford

Advocating for yourself is important—at work, at home and at the doctor’s office. Oftentimes patients get lost in the health care system simply because they don’t know what questions to ask or what treatment options are available.

Sarah Finger, the founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, experienced this firsthand when she went to the doctor for an IUD.

“Because of the Affordable Care Act and having the knowledge that we should not be charged co-pays for certain preventative health care services like birth control, when the woman at the front desk said ‘that will be a $20 copay,’ I was able to say ‘actually, no it won’t,’” Finger says.

But many women aren’t so well-versed in health care policy. Advocacy coordinator at the Center for Patient Partnerships Stephanie Johnson has a few easy tips that will make all the difference.

“Be prepared,” Johnson says. “Go to your doctor appointment with a list of questions or concerns so you can make sure to have all your questions and concerns addressed.”

She also suggests bringing pill bottles, aids and glasses to your appointment so the doctor can know exactly what kinds of medications and equipment you’re using. When it comes to conversations with your doctor, honesty is the best policy. They can diagnose and treat you most effectively if they have the whole truth.

When medical burdens pile up, so do bills. It’s easy to get lost in stress and neglect to figure out the paperwork. That’s where ABC for Health steps in. The nonprofit organization helps under or uninsured clients get the help they need without getting caught up in the insurance system.

“Don’t take on that whole burden yourself,” Bilingual Health Benefits Advocate Claire Culver says. “Put yourself first, make sure that you’re getting the care that you need without worrying ‘will I be able to pay for this?’”

Whenever you’re dealing with a serious medical issue, enlist a trusted friend or family member to help you handle the bills and bargain with insurance companies.

What if I need to advocate for someone else?

Many times women find themselves advocating for others, whether it be a child or an aging parent. Being a voice for the voiceless in your life can be just as important and speaking up for yourself.

“I strongly encourage attending all doctor’s appointments with older parents and taking notes at that appointment so that you can review the info together as a family when you get home,” Johnson says.

In some cases, it might be necessary to discuss a power of attorney or a living will with someone who won’t be able to make their own decisions down the road. These conversations are best had sooner rather than later.

Advocacy is important in policy as well as personal appointments.

“We recognize the power of policy, and not just policy in state legislative settings or national legislative settings, but policies that take place at school board levels and and workplaces, policies in health care systems,” Finger says.

If you’re having a problem at work, at school or at home, Finger encourages you to speak up and push for change. Perhaps you need medical bills to be kept private from the primary insurance holder, paid sick leave, reserved parking spots for pregnant women at work or a tougher sexual assault policy at school.

“We believe that women can either be in the kitchen or on the menu when it comes to policy, and if we’re not part of the discussion and if we’re not connecting with the decision makers, we’re missing a huge opportunity to be responsive to the needs of women,” Finger says.

So call your state representative, talk to your boss or attend a school board meeting. Make sure that the policies in your life work for you.

Looking for more self-advocacy resources? Check these out:

HealthWatch Wisconsin is like a library for patient cases. The organization compiles different cases into tips that are sent out in a newsletter. Oftentimes you can find advice that will open up different payment and treatment options.

Ottawa Personal Decision Guide can help you clear your head when making big decisions. The form prompts you to write out your options and the risks and benefits associated with each and also gives you a few suggestions about how to gather more information.

For more tips and tricks on self-advocacy, check out BRAVA’s article in the October 2016 print or online editions.

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