Smile Politely

Empowering consumers one phone call at a time

In the late 1970s, a group of graduate students working on a University of Illinois school project began to research local healthcare institutions and practices. Word got out about their research and community members who were having difficulty navigating the system began lining up. From this beginning, the Consumer Health Hotline was born. 

Today, the Consumer Health Hotline is run by Champaign County Healthcare Consumers. The concept is simple: Anyone with a healthcare question can phone the hotline at 352–6533 (extension 19) to talk to a trained volunteer for referrals and information. The hotline is run from the Champaign County Health Care Consumers offices at 44 East Main Street, Suite 208, in downtown Champaign.

The hotline’s motto is “Empowering consumers to help themselves.” Hotline coordinator Yadira Montoya (pictured seated, to the right, with fellow staff member Anne Gargano) elaborates: “It’s not like a teacher–student model. It’s more like, we’re going to work together to solve this case. We really want people to have their power, to be able to write to an insurance company, for instance, or to somehow voice their opinion.”

To Cynthia McDonnell, who has been a volunteer advocate for the hotline since 2004, the slogan means that she is “just an average person, a fellow consumer, when I’m talking to clients on the phone. I possess no special influence in the health care system, except that I can stand up for fellow consumers because I know when their situation is being felt by others and when larger scale injustices are taking place. That is extremely powerful because it helps one to understand that they didn’t cause the situation that they face, and for that they deserve to retain their dignity as they face this problem.”

The hotline is staffed entirely by volunteers. Relative to many volunteer activities — shelving books in a library for instance — working on the hotline requires a fair amount of training. Advocates who answer healthcare-related questions go through a five session training process to learn the office response system and the how to access the many handouts, pamphlets, websites, et cetera that are given to callers. A crash course is also given on local agency and clinic policies and procedures. 

“That’s the beauty and the bad thing about the hotline,” reports Montoya, “that you’re constantly learning. I have cases that I have no idea where to start and I have to do some research. I think that advocates might sometimes wish that all the cases were more similar, but volunteers do learn new things that they can not only share with clients but also in their own lives and with friends and family.” 

The hotline receives more than 400 calls a month and has dealt with an enormous variety of cases over the years. A former coordinator found herself researching the healthcare ramifications of being bitten by raccoons — Where are the best places are to receive the proper vaccines? What is and isn’t covered by insurance? — when at least three local residents called the hotline with that exact complaint.

However, the most common reason people call the hotline is to find out information on Champaign County Health Care Consumers’ Dental Referral Program that connects low-income residents with local dentists who provide services on a sliding scale. Questions about hospital billing, insurance disputes, Medicaid, and Medicare are also common. Volunteer Cynthia McDonnell says that, today, “The cases that I spend the most time working [on] are the billing questions — cases in which the clients were making payments to the clinics and then their payment agreements were not honored or the clinic demanded the bill be paid in full in a short period of time. There is not always much we can do to reason with the Clinics, so in these cases, we have to support the client, let them know that they are not alone, and be creative about ways in which to solve the problem.”

The hotline serves as the agency’s link to the healthcare concerns of local residents, and campaigns such as Access to Care, which examines local clinics’ policies towards, among others, Medicaid patients. Montoya says that during the recent economic woes, more people are calling in as a result of losing jobs and dealing with the ensuing loss of insurance benefits and ability to pay existing hospital bills. People who call the hotline, in Montoya’s words, tend to be “low income, uninsured, and seeking us as a last resort.” Beyond that, the demographics are varied.

According to Montoya, the volunteers who staff the hotline are also a diverse group, ranging from students to community members. Dental advocates often are entering dental professions themselves and seeking professional experience and contacts. Montoya feels that working as an advocate, regardless of background, makes a person more vested in the community and more likely to care about how healthcare issues effect Champaign County as a whole.

Cynthia McDonnell testifies that she finds work as an advocate on the hotline to be very fulfilling, saying “The hotline is the most rewarding volunteer activity that I have ever done, hands down. Helping folks get access to health care is like giving them back their life. That may sound hokey, but often when people call us, we are their last resort.”

Referrals to the hotline come in from other agencies such as Champaign Urbana Public Health District, the Mental Health Center, and Francis Nelson. They also come from some of the clinics that hotline consumers are frequently in dispute with over billing and access, such as Carle and Christie. Also, many people just hear about the clinic from word of mouth.

“In terms of how well we get to know people, it just depends. Sometimes we just give out information and that’s that,” says Montoya, but “there are certain clients whose cases we revisit 15 or 16 times, who I keep in contact with and who really get to know my voice on the phone.”

As evidence of the hotline’s effectiveness, Champaign County Health Care Consumers offers the following testimonial from Kay Smith, a satisfied hotline Client who was uninsured when she called in and subsequently received information about a financial assistance program: “I appreciate your friendliness, concern, and the way you followed up on my progress,” said Smith. “You’ve been such a huge help! None of this would have been possible without you and I am truly grateful.”  


To learn more about the hotline go here. The hotline provides services in Spanish and is always looking for volunteers.

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