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Meet five women making their mark in health care

The image is a combined photo of five women. The first is Clarissa Kornell: she has long curly dark hair, a light olive complexion and is wearing a dark pink shirt with a light pink scarf. Clarissa is smiling in the picture. The second woman is Sabra Townsend: she has shoulder length locs that are curled. Sabra has a medium brown skinned complexion and is wearing a dark blue blazer with an orange shirt underneath. Sabra is smiling in the picture. The third woman is Juliet Choi: she has dark hair cut into a shoulder-length bob and she has an olive complexion. Juliet is wearing black glasses, a brown necklace, and a short sleeved blue blouse. Juliet is smiling in the picture. The fourth woman is Alefiyah Mesiwala. Alefiyah has long black hair, dark olive skin and hazel eyes. Alefiyah is wearing a dark blue scarf and a black shirt and smiling in the picture. The fifth woman is Jamie Lockhart: Jamie has long dark brown hair and pale skin. Jamie is wearing a pink blazer and a black shirt underneath. Jamie is also wearing a small diamond necklace and smiling in the picture.

March 23 marks the 14th anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The passage of this landmark legislation was a watershed moment in our nation’s history, opening up access to affordable medical coverage for millions of Americans who had gone previously uninsured. Over the past 14 years, the ACA has been most consequential for people who were often “othered” through our previous healthcare systems: those with pre-existing conditions, chronic illnesses, working class families, trans and non-binary folks, and women.

In honor of the 14th anniversary of the ACA, we chatted with five Obama Alumni currently working in healthcare and health care advocacy across the country.

The image is a headshot of Dr. Alefiyah Mesiwala. The picture is located in a building on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Alefiyah has long dark hair, an olive complexion, and hazel eyes. She has a silver earring in her left ear and is wearing a dark blue scarf and a black top. She is smiling with her mouth closed.

Dr. Alefiyah Mesiwala

“I am a physician who went into medicine to help people live their best lives. I realized when I finally started practicing medicine that the system doesn't best equip physicians to truly help their patients so I decided to change that.  I have spent my career trying to find ways to improve the quality and delivery of healthcare so that all Americans can get the care they deserve and truly maximize their health and well-being.”

Positions on the Campaign/Administration: Senior Advisor in Health Care, Executive Office of the President, The White House National Economic Council

Most Recently: Chief Medical Officer, Humana Military, Humana Government Business

Then

While in her medical residency, Alefiyah Mesiwala learned about then-Senator Obama through her husband who worked on his 2008 campaign and in the Obama Administration. Alefiyah became inspired by Senator Obama's message of change and spent many days, after long nights in the hospital, advocating for his candidacy and later for the Affordable Care Act.

After completing her residency, Alefiyah joined Health and Human Services (HHS) and then the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to work on healthcare reform. Alefiyah was one of the first members at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), getting the opportunity to build policies around quality and payment reform from its inception. In her role, she helped design and launch multiple initiatives in value-based care, including the first specialty care ACO in kidney care, the ESCO model.  After her time at CMMI, Alefiyah was recruited to the White House National Economic Council where she continued to advocate for healthcare reform, working to advance key issues by launching the White House’s public private partnership in organ transplantation and a national taskforce to bring together the leading healthcare providers in the country to address the shortage of healthcare workforce. 

“My time at the Federal agency and the Obama White House was a very important chapter in my career. It gave me a well-rounded understanding of healthcare, appreciating the important role of government and industry in healthcare.” 

The Legacy and Impact of the ACA  

After her time within the Administration, Alefiyah continued to work to improve health care outcomes for patients, working at the intersections of policy, industry, and social justice. As a leader in health care, Alefiyah uses her experience to advocate for patients while addressing some of the current realities of our health care system. 

“Change is slow, especially in health care where change requires a back and forth between the government, payers, healthcare provider systems so sometimes it is easy to get impatient.  Being clear about the vision and persistence is key to the game in effectuating the change that is needed.” 

Alefiyah believes that the strides made through the Affordable Care Act have built a solid foundation for the work millions of health care workers, policy leaders, and activists are continuing 14 years later: “The legislation created a moment in healthcare that shifted the conversation towards, ‘how do we improve the health and well-being of Americans through healthcare.’  In addition to providing a vision and framework to how we can achieve health, it created tools, programs, and incentives for different industry players to start reforming.  Without it, a lot of people saw the need for change but there was nothing to ensure that there was a path forward for that change.  The ACA has provided that path and the industry and government continue to work together to build the path forward.”

Alefiyah’s Advice For People Who Want to Pursue A Career In Healthcare 

“If one can find a mission to get behind, it is easy to make work not feel like work.  In healthcare, the mission is great and the system is complex; it almost doesn’t matter what your talent is, one can find a way to use one’s talent to make a tangible impact in people’s lives and make a real difference and contribution.”

Jamie Lockhart

“Being part of the Obama Alumni community encourages me to persist in the challenging yet rewarding work of organizing and advocacy, especially in these dark, post-Roe days. It's a reminder of what we can achieve when we come together, driven by a common purpose and a commitment to positive social change.”

The image is a candid outdoor photo of a press conference the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs decision. In the photo, dozens of people are standing outside a Bell Tower on a red brick pathway. The people in the picture are holding up Planned Parenthood support signs. In the center of the picture is Jamie Lockhart. Jamie is tall with pale skin and long dark brown hair. She is wearing a black dress. Jamie is standing at a black podium talking into a microphone. Hanging on the front of the podium is a pink rectangular sign that says, “Abortion is Health Care.”

Position on the Campaign/Administration: Deputy Political Director - Virginia, Obama for America 2012

Currently: Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of VA 

Then

In 2012, Jamie Lockhart joined the Obama for America team as the Deputy Political Director for Virginia. There she worked with a vibrant team of organizers, communicators and digital experts, all tasked with mobilizing support in the crucial battleground state of Virginia for President Obama’s re-election campaign. Through her experience on the campaign trail, Jamie gained deep insight into the importance of state-based organizing and grassroots support: 

“My experience with the Obama campaign fundamentally shaped my professional trajectory and highlighted the incredible power of the grassroots, demonstrating how mobilizing communities and harnessing collective energy can lead to substantial change. This has been a cornerstone of my approach to advocacy and policy work, guiding me to always seek and cultivate local support for initiatives I believe in.”

Through her tenure on the campaign, Jamie connected with dozens of local, state, and national leaders in Virginia, setting the groundwork for her work in health care advocacy and community-based policy change. 

The Legacy and the Impact of the ACA

Following her time on the campaign, Jamie continued to build in Virginia. Today, she serves as the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, fighting for the reproductive rights of millions of Virginians. For Jamie, her work at Planned Parenthood is both deeply rooted in her time on the campaign and her personal commitment to accessible health care:

“Nearly two decades ago, as a teenager, I accessed health care services at Planned Parenthood, an experience that highlighted the importance of compassionate, accessible reproductive health care and the critical role it plays in empowering individuals to control their own reproductive futures. Now, as a parent my commitment to ensuring comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health care has only intensified.”

As the landscape of universal reproductive care becomes more tenuous, Jamie looks to strong policies at both the state and federal level as her source of inspiration. Reflecting on the passing of the Affordable Care Act, Jamie noted the importance of the ACA in shaping future policy wins – such as Virginia’s Medicaid expansion in 2018 (Opens in a new tab) – as well as the critical role the ACA plays in health care education: “...the ACA's emphasis on increasing access to contraception represented a monumental shift towards preventive health care, recognizing the importance of giving individuals the tools to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. By making contraception more accessible and affordable, the ACA not only addressed immediate health care needs but also invested in the long-term well-being of communities by supporting family planning and reducing unintended pregnancies.”  

Jamie’s Advice For People Who Want to Pursue A Career In Healthcare 

“If you're considering a career in health care and health care advocacy, my advice is to actively engage from the outset. Begin by volunteering with a local organization dedicated to effecting positive change within your community.”

Candid photo of two people posing. The first person is a tall man. He has darker brown skin and closely cut hair. He is smiling at the camera and wearing a dark colored sweater, a white collared shirt, and a striped tie. Next to the man is Sabra Townsend. She is of medium brown complexion and has locs pulled back from her face. She is smiling in the picture and wearing a red jacket.

Sabra Townsend

“Everyone has a role to play. Everyone can do something toward the goal.  During the campaign, I watched people from all backgrounds work toward a worthy cause. I strive to build that same camaraderie in developing and implementing healthcare programming for the neurodivergent community.”  

Position on the Campaign/Administration: Volunteer Coordinator, Obama for America 2008 and Field Organizer, Obama for America 2012 

Currently: Director of Operations, Thomas Jefferson University Center for Autism and Neurodiversity

Then

In 2007, Philadelphia native Sabra Townsend entered the Obama Pennsylvania campaign office hoping to donate a microwave. After speaking to PA field organizer Gregg Ross, she left as an official volunteer organizer. As a volunteer coordinator – and later, field organizer in 2012 – Sabra worked directly with people in her hometown, forging bonds around their healthcare concerns based on her own personal experiences. As the mother of a son with pre-existing conditions, Sabra worked through numerous systems to help provide her son with the care he deserved, but were difficult to access. 

“My son is my inspiration, my heart in human form. He was born with a very rare condition, and then at about 2 years old, was diagnosed with autism. Working on the campaign inspired me to fight for him even harder and bring him along. He volunteered on both campaigns and has voted in every election since he came of age to do so.” 

Following her time on both campaigns, Sabra worked as an Adult Advocacy Director for the Arc of Philadelphia where she managed a program for medical students who provided health assessments for adults with disabilities. She also managed an AmeriCorps program that supported neurodiverse corps members as they provided services to people with a wide range of abilities.  

The Legacy and Impact of the ACA  

Today, Sabra serves her community in a multitude of positions centered around health care and health care advocacy. As the Director of Operations at the Thomas Jefferson University Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, Sabra provides resources for the neurodivergent community and supports research on future community-based healthcare initiatives. There she had the opportunity to help create a pop-up clinic that catered to neurodivergent people facing challenges accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Sabra also serves as a leader on Philadelphia’s "Safety on the Spectrum: Situational Awareness in Public Spaces” Project and on the planning group for Philadelphia's international symposium on Neurodiversity and the Built Environment, working with advocates and architects from around the world. When reflecting on the importance of the Affordable Care Act, Sabra cites the direct impact the legislation has had on expanding care in Pennsylvania. 

“Because Pennsylvania accepted the expansion of Medicaid, more people have the ability to receive the health care they need. The passage of the Affordable Care Act is the groundwork for universal health care. My hope is that we, as a country, will provide healthcare for all who need it.”

Sabra’s Advice For People Who Want to Pursue A Career In Healthcare 

“Don't be afraid to speak up when you see opportunities for improvement.  We all need to play our part in providing health care for all.  If you see something, say something.  Then be willing to work toward a better outcome.”

Juliet Choi

“As a college student, I experienced first-hand how incredibly daunting securing health care is, especially when your loved ones are uninsured. I wanted to find a way to translate my immigrant family’s experiences with the health care system into advocacy and system reform.”

The image is a candid photo of a panel at the 2023 Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum Voces 2023 Conference. In the photo two people are sitting on a stage in white chairs. Behind them is a white backdrop that has the logo for the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum Voces 2023 Conference. The colors of the logo are pink and purple. In the first chair is a man. He has black and gray short hair and has an olive complexion. He is wearing glasses, a dark suit, a white button down shirt, and a red striped tie. He is smiling. The person in the second chair is Juliet Choi. She has dark black hair that is cut in a bob that hits the nape of her neck. She is of a lighter olive complexion and is wearing black rimmed glasses, a green blazer and dress with a white floral design on it and black stockings. She is talking and directing her gaze at the audience (the audience is unseen.) Between the two chairs is a white table. On the table are two deer park water bottles. On the front of the table is the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum logo.

Position on the Campaign/Administration: Chief of Staff, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at Department of Homeland Security and former senior advisor for the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at Department of Health and Human Services

Currently: President & CEO, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum 

Then

In 2011, Juliet Choi was asked to serve in the Obama administration as chief of staff to two agencies, across two departments: chief of staff and senior advisor at Office for Civil Rights at HHS (2011-2014) and US Citizenship & Immigration Services at DHS (2014-2017). 

As a member of the Obama administration, Juliet was influenced and inspired to further her opportunities as an agent of change, a leader, and a community advocate. Through her seven years serving in administration, Juliet met with communities across the country, hearing stories from families about the discrimination they faced trying to access healthcare and meeting with communities internationally as families navigated their immigration journey. These stories and experiences inspired Juliet to continue her pursuit of racial, health and community equity. 

“There is and will always be a need for community connectedness, and as leaders, I think it’s incumbent upon us all to leverage our respective platforms to amplify the joy, opportunity and responsibility to bringing community voices to the national forefront to drive and influence policy making and innovation, whether that’s here in the US or globally.” 

The Legacy and the Impact of the ACA  

Juliet has continued her service supporting and expanding care for millions of Americans. Today, she serves as the president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, one of the oldest and largest health justice organizations for the broader Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. 

In her work at APIA Health Forum, Juliet has had the opportunity to create and advocate for better health protections for the AANHPI community. Through her service, Juliet has seen the critical role health care access can have on a person’s quality of life, especially in times of uncertainty. “Access to quality health care is treated as a privilege in this country, when it is something necessary for survival and civil society’s well-being…the COVID-19 pandemic really exposed how so many of our communities are truly vulnerable and perhaps unnecessarily so. This space allows me to advocate for the overlooked and underserved communities and champion their right to affordable health care.” 

When reflecting on the ACA and its impact on health care, Juliet specifically discussed access to care for AANHPI communities around access, education, and data collection: “The ACA opened up several avenues to engage in and to expand efforts to reach vulnerable populations like Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, and so many more communities. While most people credit the ACA for expanding access in affordable health insurance, for my field of work, the ACA completely reshaped the health landscape to address equitable access. It authorized a critical financial investment in community navigators to help people enroll in coverage - many of these communities and navigators and champions provide assistance in multiple languages, helping limited English proficient communities participate in the healthcare marketplace for the first time ever.

…Most notably, Section 1557 of the ACA, what I like to call a small but mighty statute, the first civil rights statute promulgated since the Americans with Disabilities Act, explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex in covered health programs or activities. This is justice.” 

Juliet’s Advice For People Who Want to Pursue A Career In Healthcare

“Remember that the change you desire can change someone’s life or family circumstances for the better in monumental, perhaps unfathomable ways. As rewarding as healthcare advocacy is, you need to remain true to yourself. Find ways to stay grounded and find humor and joy - there's always a silver lining. And taking care of yourself is not an option but rather a mandate and it requires time and intentionality.”

The photo is a headshot of Clarissa Kornell. Clarissa has light olive skin, green eyes, and long curly dark hair. She is smiling into the camera. She is wearing a pink scarf and gold hoop earrings in her ears. Behind her on the wall is a green leaf pattern painting.

Clarissa Kornell

“When I was thinking about what I enjoyed most in my work in the Administration and on the campaign - getting to know people, learning about their lives, understanding their values and motivation - I thought about counseling. When I looked into the field and learned the principles of counseling, I heard ‘Respect. Empower. Include.’and I jumped in.”

Position on the Campaign/Administration: Field Organizer Obama for America 2008; Staff Assistant, Presidential Personnel

Currently: Substance Use and Mental Health Counselor, CHC Addiction Services, Akron, Ohio 

Then

While teaching abroad in Indonesia, Clarissa Kornell decided to apply for a position on the Obama 2008 campaign in Iowa. As a midwesterner – raised by two ministers – with a deep passion for community service, Clarissa was moved by the message of then-Senator Obama and felt compelled to join the team. Finishing her teaching position abroad, Clarissa moved to Iowa working as an intern and quickly jumping to the position of field organizer. 

In her experience as a field organizer, Clarissa was inspired by the stories she heard on the campaign trail. Following her tenure on the campaign, Clarissa was then hired as a Staff Assistant in the White House Presidential Personnel Office which led to a series of roles in the White House Liaison offices at the Department of Homeland Security and NASA. Through these positions, Clarissa was able to support and advocate for the appointees who were driving President Obama's agenda in their respective agencies. 

The Legacy and Impact of the ACA  

Following her time with the administration, Clarissa was met with a decision on where her path lay professionally and personally. Thinking about her time on the campaign and in the White House, she felt called to continue to provide care for people, especially those who are so often left behind: 

“A few things inspire me to pursue work in addiction and mental health treatment. Most obvious is the need. No matter where you live in the world, there are people suffering due to addiction and mental health problems. From the campaign and working in the Administration, I learned that listening and connecting with people is a strength that I can use to empower people.” 

Clarissa currently works as a substance use and mental health counselor in Akron, Ohio at a community-based agency that provides Medicated Assisted Treatment and individualized dual-diagnosis therapy to support those who are battling addiction and mental health issues.. Through this work Clarissa has seen the benefits of accessible health care and the need for more work to be done to continue to build on the foundation of ACA at the state and local level:

“…the ACA expanded coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment, but it also helped reduce the stigma around care by promoting mental health and addiction treatment as a part of general health care, rather than something to be ashamed of…By working as a substance use and mental health counselor, my aim is to provide comfort and promote healing in my community, while gaining understanding that I can utilize to advocate for local, statewide and national policies.” 

Clarissa’s Advice For People Who Want to Pursue A Career In Healthcare 

“Follow your heart, don't be afraid to make a big change in your career (or life), and approach the people you encounter with the mindset of Respect. Empower. Include.”

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