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Despite delays, Obamacare ‘navigators’ anxious to hit the streets

Ginger Seff HighlPark many others participating an Illinois Assister program learn how help uninsured Illinoisans understAffordable Care Act Friday September

Ginger Seff, of Highland Park, and many others participating in an Illinois Assister program, to learn how to help uninsured Illinoisans understand the Affordable Care Act, on Friday, September 13, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:14AM



Some of the organizations that received federal funding to recruit navigators or in-person counselors — those charged with helping others understand the Affordable Care Act — admit they’re still waiting to hire them.

Two weeks before a key launch date for the nation’s health care law, other agencies say they’re still waiting to get more information before they start sending their navigators out to the public.

Navigators and in-person counselors — who basically do the same thing — are important because they are the ones who will have direct contact with uninsured Illinois residents trying to make sense of the ACA as they choose a health plan.

The federal and state governments have insisted that many of the questions will get resolved in time for their Oct. 1 deadlines. That’s when Illinois and other states are supposed to start offering affordable plans on newly-created online marketplaces for people who lack health insurance, a key part of the Affordable Care Act — or, as it is informally known, Obamacare.

One of the unknowns is how much insurance plans on this new Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace will cost. In addition, neither the federal nor the state government has finished work on the complex websites most consumers are supposed to use to help them compare and buy health coverage.

The longer they wait, the less time that gives navigators to do their job, some experts have said.

Elizabeth Calhoun, who is leading the training effort in Illinois, downplayed that criticism. A professor of health policy and administration at UIC School of Public Policy, Calhoun pointed out, “Oct. 1 is not really the hard line. It’s really a soft launch.”

Graciela Guzman, 24, who was hired to be an in-person counselor by PrimeCare Community Health, added that even without all of the specifics, the training makes her feel confident about “who our populations will be and what questions they may have.”

“So we’re gonna be experts on one thing,” Guzman said. “We’ll eventually become experts on [the rest]. That doesn’t scare me yet.”

Carolyn McDaniel, 62, of Park Manor, put it even simpler: “I’m ready to go.”

Illinois residents have until March 31, 2014 to enroll in a health insurance plan, to get coverage that could begin as early as Jan. 1.

After that, a person can only obtain the new private health insurance for 2014 through a special enrollment period and if they have a qualifying life event, such as job loss, birth, or divorce.

Illinois estimates that 500,000 people will get coverage through Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace in the first year and up to 1 million by 2016. Another 600,000 Illinois residents will be newly eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor, starting Oct. 1.

But that can only happen if people know that these options exist.

Though the law has been around since 2010, many Americans have said they still don’t understand what’s in it. And only a third of the uninsured Americans – the target group – said they had sought out information about Obamacare, Kaiser Family Foundation reported in August.

To help get the word out, the Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $6.2 million in grant money to Illinois community health centers to hire 132 navigators. HHS has given $150 million nationwide this purpose. Gov. Quinn gave another $27 million in federal funds to 44 community organizations to help them do outreach.

Navigators must have one day of online training and two days of in-depth training in person, where they cover such things as patient confidentiality and who would qualify for the marketplace and Medicaid, Calhoun said.

So far, 15 trainings have taken place throughout the state and about a dozen more are planned, possibly including a few after Oct. 1.

Navigators will be sent to community events, health clinics and wherever else the uninsured are likely to be with laptops to help people sign up for insurance online.

In the meantime, volunteers for Enroll America, Planned Parenthood of Illinois and a few others aren’t waiting to get the word out. An event in Roseland last weekend was part of a larger push to start educating the public in Illinois and nine other states.

Many faith-based organizations, too, have started helping to make sure their uninsured members know about the new benefits. The idea is to capitalize on the trust people tend to have in their priest, rabbi or imam — and leave out the politics.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and people need to … hear it from their trusted leaders,” said Laura Leon, director of faith initiatives for the Campaign for Better Health Care. Leon estimated her organization had reached out to about 1,500 faith-based organizations in Illinois.

Among those is Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which was seeking to get 300 to 400 clergy members in Illinois at its events so they would be able to educate their congregants.

The goal, Enroll America’s National Regional Director Saumya Narechania and others have said, is to bombard the public with the same message in a number of different ways, so it sinks in.

“This isn’t all gonna happen today. It’s not all gonna happen the next month. It’s not even gonna happen within the first enrollment period,” Narechania said. “But we’re going to make sure we keep the press on and we’re going to make sure we get to these folks through multiple touches.”

Email: mjthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MonifaThomas1



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