Aakash Shah Honored as White House ‘Champion of Change’

Aakash Shah, a 28-year-old Indian American, has been honored as a Champion of Change by the White House for founding Be Jersey Strong, helping people sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The Champions of Change program was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature individuals doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities, according to a statement from the White House. Ten ACA “Champions of Change” — selected from community nominations — were honored last week.

Health care coverage in the state is inexpensive, said Shah, noting that almost 75 percent of residents will qualify for some form of subsidized health insurance, with premiums as low as $75 per month, prompting the young Shah, a third-year medical student at Harvard Medical School and doing his rotations at Massachusetts General Hospital when he conceived of the idea for Be Jersey Strong, a volunteer-driven organization that helps people sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“It is very frustrating for a provider to see this,” Shah, who was honored Mar. 26 by the White House as a “Champion of Change,” told India-West. He noted that there are a large number of people who qualify for subsidized, low-cost healthcare coverage under the ACA, but have not enrolled for various reasons, including language barriers, the complexity of the enrollment process, and lack of knowledge about the various options for coverage.

“My patients were saying ‘it’s not as easy as it sounds,’ to enroll,” said the New Jersey native. “So many of us are having trouble enrolling; it’s no surprise that my patients were also having trouble. We don’t need slick Web sites. We need one-on-one conversations to guide us through the process,” explained Shah.

Shah, who did an away rotation in the emergency room at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Hospital — saw many patients come through the doors in need of medical care but lacking health insurance coverage.

In 2015, Shah founded Be Jersey Strong, a non-profit organization which recruits student volunteers to sign up people for health care coverage. Since last summer, Be Jersey Strong has recruited more than 500 volunteers from 20 local universities and provided services to more than 12,000 people. The organization has set an ambitious target of recruiting 1,000 college students to have over 100,000 one-on-one conversations with uninsured people about their health care options.

Students are natural cheerleaders for the ACA, said Shah, noting that many of them come from the same backgrounds as the community they are attempting to serve. Moreover, they understand the pathos of being uninsured or having to insure themselves for the first time, he said.

Students enrolling other students benefit from the peer-to-peer contact, said Shah. Newer immigrants — most states require immigrants to legally reside in the U.S. before receiving federal benefits — often face language barriers when attempting to enroll. Be Jersey Strong’s student volunteers speak 15 different languages, including several South Asian languages. Many volunteers first sign up their own families.

New Jersey has more than 525,000 undocumented residents, who are ineligible for coverage under the mandates of the ACA. Shah said many legal residents are afraid to enroll for health care coverage for fear of exposing their undocumented family members. Student volunteers — many who are in mixed immigration families — are able to allay such fears, he said, and also to provide undocumented residents with information about health care resources they can avail of, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, which are mandated to provide health care to all, regardless of immigration status.

Shah related the story of a volunteer who had been with the organization for three weeks and enrolling people at his church after Sunday services. The volunteer came across a 48-year-old woman whose family had a strong history of breast cancer. “She told our volunteer, ‘it is a virtual certainty that I’m going to develop breast cancer.’ She was absolutely right.”

The woman had gone to a local ER, but could not be tested, because she lacked insurance. “She was sent away with a brochure for healthcare.gov. She went away worse than when she went in, because now there was a bill in the mail for the consultation,” Shah told India-West.

The volunteer worked with her over three Sundays and got her enrolled. “The student realized he had saved this woman’s life. He loved that feeling,” said Shah, noting that the volunteer subsequently decided to go to medical school.

The health care activist hopes to build a network in which volunteers can interact with their enrollees to ensure they are getting adequate care. Be Jersey Strong is supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the United Way, along with private donations.

Shah said he was “excited and quite humbled” to be named a “Champion of Change” by the White House. “I was filled with a sense of gratitude that they acknowledged all the hard work of our volunteers,” he said.

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