Tucked into a modest building at the corner of Bassett and Mifflin Streets — the former home of Madison’s Mifflin Street Co-Op — is a nonprofit public interest law firm that’s been fighting for a quarter-century to get people the health care they need.
As ABC for Health celebrates its 25th anniversary on July 1, founder and Executive Director Bobby Peterson is rightfully proud of the ways the organization has grown, breaking molds and barriers along the way. And even as more and more candidates and elected officials highlight the importance of health care access, Peterson knows underserved patients will need advocates to help them through the convoluted system for years to come.
The organization is also looking for community support — a $25,000 fundraising campaign is underway — as Peterson admits it’s been a tough year, financially.
For Peterson, a University of Wisconsin law graduate, public health advocacy started with an internship that later became a job with the Center for Public Representation, where he learned about the health care needs of uninsured residents of rural Wisconsin. It became apparent to him at the time that there were options available to the Barron County residents he interviewed that they didn’t know about — and that someone familiar with the law could help connect those dots.
In his early years with the Center for Public Representation, Peterson honed his skills as an attorney focused on health care coverage — working with children with special needs, learning the ins and outs of disability programs and Medicaid, and confronting insurance companies. Through this work, he realized how important it is to get ahead of potential problems — being proactive rather than reactive in aligning patients with the right coverage.
In 1994, he set out on his own to launch ABC for Health, which now employs 16 people — some lawyers, some trained advocates — all of whom work to connect low-income individuals and families with health care coverage, educate patients and providers, partner with providers to reduce unpaid bills, and advocate for policy changes.
“By partnering with families and individuals, we're able to cut through red tape much more quickly,” Peterson told me.
Peterson sees some “unfortunate similarities” between the health care environment that existed in 1994 and the one in which the firm operates today.
“People are still overwhelmed by the system,” he told me. “Oftentimes they're caught up in the illness or trying to help someone with an illness — a parent, a sibling, a relative, a neighbor. And there's just so much that the layperson just doesn't know.”
Low-income populations already subjected to health disparities continue to face the greatest challenges, he said, because of how difficult it is to challenge the “monolithic bureaucracies of insurance companies or Medicaid programs.”
But at the same time, coverage options have improved. Although the Affordable Care Act wasn’t exactly what ABC for Health wanted, it was “a step in the right direction,” Peterson told me.
As Democratic presidential candidates debate the merits of a “Medicare for All” system — championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and supported by several others in the field — Peterson’s view is pragmatic.
“Whatever system we create is going to be challenging, because it's not a system that’s ever going to say, ‘You get all the care you want, whenever you want,’” he said. "And I think that's what some people are looking for. It's just not going to happen that way. It doesn't happen in Medicare right now that way. You have some level of security, but you need to make sure that you have the support that people need to navigate these systems, to be an advocate for them.”
No health care system is perfect — and even if the U.S. finds a way to get close to perfect, it will take us a long time to get there. We need organizations like ABC for Health working on the ground, helping individuals and families get the care they need — while working at the same time on a broader level to shape policy as close to perfect as we can get.
“We're not an advocacy organization that's just talking about the issue and lobbying on the issue,” Peterson said. “We actually serve thousands and thousands of clients, see the issues, discuss them at case meetings, work with our clients to resolve them, and learning from that experience allows us to translate that into policy recommendations.”
For years, ABC for Health has partnered with state government and health care providers. The firm’s relationship with the state deteriorated under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, which terminated a consumer assistance program the firm had operated in partnership with the state. Gov. Tony Evers’ administration would do well to rebuild that bridge.
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