First Person:Getting GAMP

I went to apply for GAMP this morning. That’s the General Assistance Medical Program. It’s for people like me with low incomes and no health insurance. Going through the procedure of applying for acceptance to the program is an inside view into what it’s like to live in a Third World country. It was still dark when my 5 am alarm sounded. I figured I’d get there around 6:45. A friend had explained the situation to me: “They open at 7 am and take the first 19 people, so get there early,” she said. That was my plan; get there early. But then, on my second cup of coffee, after I’d finished my journaling, I pulled out the informational paper I’d received when I’d gone to the wrong place the first time after being misinformed by a government worker. The official government handout said the office didn’t open until 8 am. Stymied, I decided to call the office on the off-chance that there’d be a recorded message giving me the true hours. My call was answered by a recording that let me know that the building opened at 7. Hmmm. The building. I knew that there were other offices as well as a clinic in the building. Did this mean that the GAMP office opened at 7 as well? I couldn’t take the chance of waiting for 7 to call, so I decided to get there just before 7. That way, if they didn’t open until 8 I’d only have to stand out in the cold for an hour. The line outside the door at 6:55 was long but I vaguely judged my place as inside the 19 mark, as long as a few people were along for company. Besides, we couldn’t all be going to the same place, right? Wrong. The doors opened at 7 am and the line inched along as each person signed in. I was number 14. Phew! The tender of the sign-up paper asked me to carry it downstairs to the counter there. I felt oddly honored. Silly feeling. He probably gives it to the last person in line every morning. I’m the last. As I head down the stairs, paper in hand, I’m mistaken for an employee. No, just the carrier. I know I stick out, not only because I’m white, although that’s a part of it, but I’m also rather nicely dressed and my carriage is confident. I’m not the “kind of person” who’s supposed to be here. Breaking stereotypes is one of my small pleasures in life. Downstairs the room is clean, spare. A counter in front encloses a small office space. Several lines of bolted-together armless chairs face the counter. There’s definitely no excess seats. Spying an open one in the back row is a relief. We’re all pretty tightly jammed in. The young Asian man next to me moves to the next seat over, then thinks better of it and moves back. Hmm? I realize later that he is here as interpreter for his mother who is seated on the end of the row of chairs in front of us. Her arm is in a sling. She’s probably there to renew her GAMP coverage. One must go through the entire process every six months to continue in the program. The literature I’ll receive after my office visit explains this with the specification that you must wait until 2 weeks before your expiration date to reapply. You must pay the $35 fee each time. Everyone has been seated for several minutes when the far door opens. A sharply dressed middle-aged woman enters the room with a loud, “Good Morning!” as she rounds the counter. The occupants of the room chorus “Good Morning!” I stifle a giggle. I haven’t heard a response like that since grade school. After introducing herself she explains the program; what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and, particularly, what we need to have with us right now: Photo ID as a Wisconsin resident, proof of social security number, and a check or money order (absolutely no cash!) made out to GAMP for $35. Also, any proof of income. If we have none we must explain on our application how we’re getting by. Saying, for instance, “family member” will do. We don’t need to name anyone. Somewhere in this oratory she has also alluded to the fact that the person who will process us won’t arrive until at least 8 am. It’s now 7:10. She politely commands us to get our required items out and have them ready. After a minute or two she calls out last names, probably 1 through 9 on the list. The people file to the front, not sure what to do until she directs them to form a line. Then, one by one, photo copies are made of their documents, questions are asked, an application is affixed to a clipboard, areas that require completion are highlighted, and the person is sent back with their photocopy and application to fill out. This method takes some time but is probably necessary as there don’t appear to be enough clipboards for everyone, not to mention pens. I’m glad I brought my own. The first group is instructed to bring their completed applications to the side of the desk, not the front. This lady is really quite amazing in her ability to choreograph and attend to this entire operation. Latecomers have been arriving intermittently. The first five of them get on the list. Those following are given a choice of coming back tomorrow “from 6:30 to 6:45 am.” if they want to be evaluated for acceptability in the same day, or they can go through the process, do their paperwork and in 15 days learn by mail whether they’re eligible. I note that this information is unavailable until you get there. Meanwhile, I’m in the second group. I’m a bit surprised by the easy acceptance of my personal check. I return to my seat. It’s funny how all of us return to our same chair although there’s nothing that says we couldn’t sit in any of the current empties. Once I’ve filled out my forms I return to join another line waiting to have our applications judged passable. I get by with no questions, unlike many of the others. Returning to my chair, stapled application in hand, I go back to reading the book I’ve brought, Black Like Me. The irony is not lost on me. I’m thankful I’ve brought a book. As the clock nears 8 the lady calls out the name of the first person on the list. When answered, she calls the second name and instructs that person to remember the first because after number 1 has finished her processing and come back through the door, number 2 will go though the door and down the hall. OK. That’s the idea. Now she shows number 2 to number 3 and down the list to a few more. Then she leaves and a security guard takes her place. She reappears intermittently over the next few hours to continue this process. On one of her visits she spies a man leaving for the stairwell, papers in hand. She yells after him, “If you step out of this room with your papers, your application will be invalid!” He hasn’t heard her so his wife leaps from her chair in pursuit, eyes wide with fear. The lady was clearly not messing around. The wife retrieves the papers and all is well. Now the wait begins. The three men seated to my left interact like old friends. It surprises me when one of them tells me they met this morning. People talk and share newspapers. This type of tedious waiting seems to bring out the best in people who’ve gone through this kind of process before. It helps the time pass. Somewhere around 9:30 my name is called and I’m introduced to the gentleman who’ll be before me, the young Asian man. That gets changed shortly after when a well-dressed elder black woman returns from, apparently, being refused Medicare. She becomes my new person to watch for. Time grinds on. At 10:20 am I finally find my way to the processor’s office. She’s not exactly welcoming but I really wouldn’t expect her to be, sitting in this small, windowless office doing this same thing day after day. If three and a half hours felt this long to me, it can’t feel like less to her. After telling me I’ve been accepted, she restates some of the information the other lady began our day with. You may only use this at the clinic you “chose” (out of a choice of two). You must not go to a hospital emergency room except in a life-threatening situation. Only certain pharmacies may be used. She hands me the list of pharmacies. They’re all run by Aurora. Card in hand, I head back to the waiting room, and at 10:40 I make my exit. The air outside, so cold and wet, feels like heaven.