Everyone has to wait 15 minutes after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine. Financial counselors at Spectrum Health make good use of these 15 minutes.

“While people are waiting, my team uses that opportunity to walk around and ask if they need help,” says Elisa Contreras, manager of financial counseling.

At Spectrum Health’s pop-up vaccine clinics, which are publicized on social media, financial counselors make the rounds, asking if anyone wants to apply for Medicaid, needs any state benefits (e.g., food stamps or emergency assistance), or needs help making a primary care appointment. “Right there in the moment, we help and get things going,” Contreras reports. “It feels great to help the community.”

Financial counselors, who are bilingual, are finding this is a great way to help with unmet needs of underserved communities. Some people lack transportation to travel to vaccine sites. “We are removing that barrier,” Contreras says.

Spectrum established vaccine clinics at community locations, such as senior centers and churches. “About 60% express some type of financial concerns,” Contreras says.

If patients decline services, financial counselors offer a business card to share with friends and family. “Most of the community members mention that a family member needs assistance,” Contreras says, adding that financial counselors are receiving many calls from people who were referred this way.

Sometimes, the situation is complex enough to require follow-up with a financial counselor. If so, it is handled at one of Spectrum Health’s locations in the same ZIP codes as the pop-up vaccine clinics. Financial counselors are there twice a week. This allows for an in-person meeting; often, this is the time to go over how to complete applications.

On site, financial counselors ask: Do you have a hospital bill right now that you need help with? One married couple admitted they were worried about an outstanding balance. After checking her hospital account, it was determined the couple was eligible for full financial assistance, and the form was completed. “The two patients stated, ‘God bless you for helping us in these hard times. It’s a great program. We came for the vaccine, and you have no idea how much you just helped us.’”

Another man was distraught over a $700 balance that he could not afford. The account had gone to collection. After a quick screening, the financial counselor saw the man qualified for assistance, but it had not been discovered by anyone previously. The financial counselor removed the account from collections and wrote off the balance on the spot. It was a huge weight off the man’s shoulders. “The community member was so relieved that he started crying. He came for the vaccine, and left with a zero balance,” Contreras says.