The Reentry Transition Center (RTC) is a program of Mercy Corps NW that helps connect formerly incarcerated people with the resources they need to adjust to life on the outside: food, housing, and medical assistance. With the health care system facing dramatic changes, navigating that new system poses a challenge, especially for someone coming out of prison. Luckily, the RTC has AmeriCorps VISTA Jeremy Nichols at its side.
Jeremy is stationed at the RTC to develop a system that will help ex-offenders access healthcare through Coordinated Care Organizations (CCO). A CCO is a collection of several health care providers working together under the Oregon Health Plan, otherwise known as Medicaid.
Currently Jeremy is on focused on developing a navigation system for the RTC so re-entering persons can more easily access Medicaid. His primary goal is to make that system sustainable. He also aims to learn more about the Affordable Care Act. “I don’t feel like I’ve learned a lot because I learn a little bit each day,” said Jeremy. “Then I think about meetings when I hear people talking, I realize I actually have learned a lot. I feel more confident in a lot of meetings because I actually know what I’m talking about.”
The new healthcare system can be difficult to understand and even harder to explain, but so far, Jeremy is doing an excellent job.“Cover Oregon works as a portal where everyone signs up if health insurance is not provided by their job,” explained Jeremy. “CCOs are handling all the Medicaid. They connect to primary care, dental care, mental health — that’s all taken care of under one roof now.”
The idea is to wrap up several types of providers — doctors, dentists, and therapists — into one healthcare package. Though seemingly straightforward, there remains one challenge: there are two CCOs in Multnomah County. That means there are two different “packages” that a healthcare provider could belong to.
“The RTC has to partner with both CCOs, and both of them have different systems,” explained Jeremy. “One is a conglomerate of five different healthcare providers.
Jeremy thinks that “signing up and getting into Medicaid is honestly going to be the easiest part. The next step of the puzzle is figuring out what the RTC can keep doing for its clients after they get their first appointment.” The goal of Jeremy’s healthcare navigation program is to support the long-term wellness of the RTC’s clients. He is also looking for ways to increase the RTC’s referral networks and educational opportunities to establish a continuum of care among clients.
This is not the first time Jeremy found himself involved in a major project during a time of need and change. Less than a month after starting high school in Louisiana, Jeremy lived through the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
“After Hurricane Katrina, the homeless people in Louisiana tripled. It was huge,” said Jeremy. “A lot of people lost their houses.”
The homes in the ninth ward of New Orleans were worst hit. “What a lot of people didn’t realize was that those people owned their homes outright,” explained Jeremy. “They didn’t have mortgages because their houses had been in the family for a really long time, but they also didn’t have insurance on them because they just couldn’t afford insurance. When their houses were destroyed, there wasn’t any back up plan, so they were forced to leave and they were left with nothing.”
That experience pushed Jeremy toward a life of service. He began volunteering with his father’s organization helping the homeless and ex-offenders. He also began building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Years later, as a college freshman, Jeremy raised $4,000 to ride his bike across the country with the organization Bike & Build, which helped him build and repair homes for low-income people along the way. Jeremy’s trip began in North Carolina and ended in San Diego. “The idea is you dip your back wheel in the Atlantic then you dip your front wheel into the Pacific,” said Jeremy. “We crossed the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Ozarks.”
After cycling across the country then finishing college, Jeremy decided to complete a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA, bringing him to the RTC. This position stuck out more than any other, so much so that it was the only one for which he applied. Jeremy knew he wanted to work with ex-offenders since college. He’d taken a course that took place in a prison and integrated both inmates and undergraduates as students learning together as peers. Jeremy developed a connection with the professor and his classmates, so when he saw a position helping the reentry population, he was immediately on board.
After being just a few months into his VISTA year, Jeremy has a lot more to learn, but at the rate he’s going he will undoubtedly reach his current goals and more. With such an intelligent and creative VISTA, the RTC can look forward to a strong year of helping the reentry population get the medical care they need.