Gwendolyn Alford is at the end of her line. Her daughter has a disability and needs frequent doctor’s appointments to manage her condition. Alford and her daughter are both covered under HUSKY A — the program that administers Medicaid in Connecticut — but Alford does not own a car and relies on public transportation to get around.

Since many HUSKY A members are in the same situation as Alford, the program’s benefits are supposed to include transportation to and from health-care appointments. But she said the car service that ferries them is constantly late, forcing them to cancel or reschedule her daughter’s appointments.

“When we take that ride there, the company still gets paid,” she said. “But my daughter’s not getting her services.”

To learn how to advocate for better and more equitable treatment, Alford and others like her are attending the HEALTH Institute — a four-week class designed to teach community members about potential changes to the health-care system and enable them to effect change themselves. Sponsored by Christian Community Action at 660 Winchester Ave., the institute has grown sevenfold over the past three weeks from just six participants at the first meeting to over 40 on Thursday.

Merryl Eaton, director of advocacy and education at Christian Community Action, emphasized how word of mouth has created a diverse body of attendees.

“We have senior citizens who are going, ‘What do you mean you’re cutting my funding?’ We have a few African-American men in their 20s,” she said. “I need their voices too.”

The classes bring in outside speakers every week and have covered topics ranging from the basics of insurance to racial and class disparities in health care. Thursday’s class featured legal aid activist Jane McNichol, who led a discussion on tools community members can use to advocate for themselves.

The class included a role-playing of a legislator meeting with his constituents and witnesses testifying at a hearing in the legislature. McNichol used the role-playing to reiterate the idea that the people affected by a policy should be the ones pushing for change.

“If people’s voices aren’t heard, their needs just don’t get met,” she told the News.

Participants highlighted their struggles with a system that often seems opaque. Attendee Dan Pflug said that after Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield refused to pay for treatment for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, the frustration he experienced while dealing with the insurance company led him to take the class. From ignoring customers’ calls to delaying processing, health insurance companies treat the claims process as a game, he said, adding that the massive profits they earn makes their behavior even more shameful.

Two participants, Latasha McClain and Donna Buzik, said they learned about Connecticut’s Office of the Healthcare Advocate through the institute. Health-care experts also taught Buzik about discontinuing prescriptions, following up with her doctor and spotting deceptive hospital bills, Buzik added.

Participants were universally enthusiastic about applying the knowledge they gained at the institute to cause real policy change. McClain said that after struggling with homelessness and food insecurity in the past, she was ready to become a voice for disadvantaged communities and speak out against domestic violence and substance abuse.

Being vocal with what she had learned would be “passing the baton down to a 25-, 28-year-old that’s in the same situation that I was in and sometimes still am in,” McClain said.

Attendee Brenda Harris expressed concern about federal cuts to the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, where she receives her health care. Without this funding, care for her diabetes and high blood pressure would not otherwise be affordable to her, she said.

McNichol ended her discussion with a reassurance to her audience.

“Nothing you do is ever wasted,” she said, quoting a friend. “Even if you think you lost, you have changed the conversation.”

Will Wang |