Massachusetts Doctors Are Helping Patients Vote From Their Hospital Beds

PHOTO: Doctor Jennifer Okwerekwu of Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts holds an absentee ballot on Nov. 8, 2016.Courtesy Jennifer Okwerekwu
Doctor Jennifer Okwerekwu of Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts holds an absentee ballot on Nov. 8, 2016.

A group of Massachusetts doctors is helping sick patients vote this Election Day in a new effort to make sure even those in the hospital have a chance to exercise their democratic right.

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Dr. Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu co-founded the Social Justice Coalition for Cambridge Health Alliance this summer. Last month the coalition decided on finding ways to help recently hospitalized patients vote.

"We do serve a population that can be low income or vulnerable [in] other situations," said Okwerekwu, who works at Cambridge Hospital, part of the Cambridge Health Alliance.

PHOTO: A man puts on a sticker after voting inside Brookside Engine Company 1 firehouse June 7, 2016, in Mendham Township, N.J.Mel Evans/AP Photo
A man puts on a sticker after voting inside Brookside Engine Company 1 firehouse June 7, 2016, in Mendham Township, N.J.

As a doctor, she wanted to help her most vulnerable patients. "As a physician I feel like I am temporarily the guardian of someone's well-being," she said.

In October, the alliance started calling electoral officials to find out what patients could do if they were unexpectedly hospitalized. It turned out there was a specific provision in Massachusetts that would allow patients to submit an absentee ballot. If patients filled out an application and designated a proxy, that proxy can exchange the application for an absentee ballot, which would then be mailed in by Election Day.

"The coalition wanted to make sure that their patients' votes were not suppressed and their voice was heard...that's why we took on this project," Okwerekwu explained. "Once we figured out the logistics and rules and what the actual policy was, we put together some literature...that literature we attached to an application for the actual ballot."

Okwerekwu said the initiative is just a first step and just a few patients had participated as of today. However, she is hoping other medical centers might create their own initiatives to help patients in the future. Okwerekwu also wanted to draw attention to the issue on a national level, writing an essay for STAT News about the program yesterday.

"The Social Justice Coalition’s mission is simple: honor the intrinsic and indisputable worth of all people," she wrote. "Promote equity across all domains. Improve the social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political health of the communities we serve. Empowering hospitalized patients to vote is part of that mission."

While Okwerekwu and other members of the Social Justice Coalition focused on getting ballot applications to patients, Okwerekwu said some patients still require extra assistance.

"We've been giving out the applications and helping patients get in touch with local election offices or faxing and emailing the forms," said Okwerekwu. "I'm actually in the car. I'm on the way to a town hall to drop off a ballot."

She said other doctors have been designated as proxies for patients who had no friends or family members who could exchange the application for an absentee ballot.

"That's the one other thing we take for granted...not every one in the hospital has someone," she said.

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