Nine years ago, Katie Winchell saw an article in the Asheville Citizen Times about Pisgah Legal Services helping people sign up for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Katie thought, “They are going to need help, and this is my area of interest. I figured they would get back with me and I would be needed to shuffle papers or rubber stamp something.” Soon after, she received a call about a volunteer meeting with PLS. At the meeting, she was surprised to find out she was officially the first person PLS heard from about volunteering for the ACA enrollment program. What’s more, at that meeting she learned that she would be doing more than “shuffling papers,” she was actually on the track to become a certified Navigator.

For Katie, volunteering was something that came naturally. Her parents modeled the importance of volunteering and engagement with her community. “My mother and father were both socially active, and before I retired, I was doing some volunteering work,” she said. Prior to volunteering for PLS, Katie volunteered for the literacy council, Literacy Together, in Asheville to teach English as a second language to immigrants.

Before retiring, Katie devoted 15 years of her life in the health field while working at Mission Hospital as a lactation consultant. Katie feels her work in the medical field helped provide a solid foundation for her work as a Navigator. She saw firsthand the need for people to have insurance.

Katie recalls memories of a pre-ACA era. “I remember when the insured could max out their health insurance, “she said. “After $1,000,000 in claims, insurance would end. The rest of your medical expenses would be your responsibility, even if something catastrophic happened to you.”

Now, with the Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act there are protections built into the health care system to protect people from bankruptcy, such as yearly out-of-pocket maximums. She believes people did not see the benefits of the law initially. When the ACA was first enacted she noticed more resistance, she explained. As time progressed and people saw the benefits and protections, they became more accepting of ACA coverage.

There are times when she needs to keep the tissue box handy if a consumer ends up falling into the Medicaid Gap. The Medicaid Gap occurs when people with low income are found ineligible for both Medicaid and Marketplace subsidies. When the Affordable Care Act was written, the law was intended to expand Medicaid in all states. However, North Carolina chose not to expand Medicaid, thus failing to cover people due to their income. When this happens, Katie said, she informs consumers about community resources in their area such as clinics that provide services on a sliding fee scale such as Western North Carolina Community Health Services, the Dale Fell Center, or Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry Clinic. “Typically, one way or another we can help them gain access to services, “stated Katie. “Either way, whether they are eligible for enrollment or not eligible for enrollment, we try to help them meet their needs.” Katie added.

Katie said she notices that consumers frequently commented that they felt heard. She believes that “if you deal with the public one-on-one, when they are in a situation where they need help, I think that probably gives you the empathy you need to do this work and see it satisfying rather than terrifying.” She states that she has always admired PLS and feels extremely supported by staff in her work. “Having other volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds also is a great asset,” she added. Katie expressed that she has been impressed with the high standard that PLS sets. Katie feels her husband has been her biggest support throughout her career and most definitely in her volunteer years. “Whenever I go out to do one of my volunteer jobs he says, ‘Okay, go save the world, I’ll be here when you get back.’”

In addition, to her work at PLS, Katie also is an accomplished quilter. She has sewn all her life but started to quilt in 2000. Currently, Katie has two quilts in the PLS Asheville office. One is in an enrollment room and the other is hanging on the wall outside of the conference rooms. She said she was asked by Jackie Kiger, COO, to sew a quilt to commemorate PLS’ work in relation to the ACA. The quilt has stars with a square in the middle where Navigators wrote what working on the ACA meant to them. She added quilted hand shapes to the quilt, and both PLS staff and Katie are exceptionally proud of the quilt not only for its beautiful craftmanship and significance but particularly sine it won the Judges Award at the Asheville Quilt Show.

Inspired by Katie’s story? Find out about volunteer opportunities with Pisgah Legal Services