An army of outreach workers from all over the state gathered Thursday at New Britain High School to get their marching orders from staff at the Insurance Exchange — now called Access Health CT.
Enrollment in the virtual marketplace created by the federal health insurance law, also known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, starts this October and an “army” of 300 part-time workers will be out there making sure people know how to sign up.
The part-time workers are referred to under the law as “Assisters.” They are people who currently work for nonprofits, small businesses, faith-based organizations, libraries, unions, and health departments and already are spreading the word about the program. With a $1.9 million federal grant, the state is going to offer them more training and a laptop computer with wifi access so they can help enroll individuals and enter data from the field.
The “Assisters” will be helped by six regional “Navigator” organizations that will work with the Office of the Healthcare Advocate and Access Health CT to engage consumers. The Navigators will provide strategic, cultural, linguistic, and technical support to the “Assisters.”
Maria Damiani, director of the New Haven Health Department’s maternal and child health division, will be one of the navigators for New Haven County.
She said her department already has experience enrolling individuals in Husky, which is the Medicaid program for children and their families. The Medicaid program under Obamacare will be expanded from 133 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty level and those who have incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level will receive a subsidy.
Where will the outreach begin?
“We already have a pretty good idea of where to start,” Damiani said.
Damiani said her team is going to visit churches and other community gathering locations such as local fairs and events.
But each community and region of the state is different.
Jody Davis of Coram Deo Inc., a recovery center for women in New Britain, said her group is going to do outreach to small employers and even some large ones like Wal-Mart, a company that often doesn’t offer insurance to its employees.
She said they’re also going to have workers stationed at the libraries in New Britain.
Leslie Swiderski, of the Waterbury Health Access Program, said she’s going to engage people where they receive their care, such as emergency rooms and outpatient clinics.
Jamaly Rios, also of Coram Deo in New Britain, said she works with military families who often don’t have insurance. Only the spouse enlisted in the military receives the insurance, which means the family is not covered, she said.
Rios also will reach out to the Hispanic community. “They often have no insurance because they feel like they can’t afford it,” Rios said. “This program makes it possible.”
Access Health CT received “Assister” applications from people who speak 36 different languages and will seek to provide assistance to residents in the language they are comfortable hearing.
Kate Gervais, manager of the assister and navigator programs, said there are going to be a lot of people who don’t know they qualify for a federal subsidy because they have incomes closer to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Four hundred percent of the federal poverty level is $45,000 for an individual and up to $94,200 for a family of four.
“We have to be the army,” Gervais said. “We have to be out there and we have to tell them otherwise.”
She said there are many reasons people are uninsured and outreach workers will have to be conscious of those reasons.
Damiani said there’s a lot of misinformation out there about Obamacare and she suspects part of their job over the next few months will be dispelling some of that misinformation.
There are about 344,000 individuals in the state of Connecticut without health insurance and the goal of the “Assisters” and “Navigators” is to find them and make sure they know how to enroll in the exchange — where they can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.
Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, estimates that they will be able to sign up about 100,000 to 130,000 individuals in the first year.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who chairs the Access Health CT board, equated the outreach effort to a campaign.
“The way you win a campaign is face-to-face,” Wyman said. “Talking to people, answering their questions, and helping them out whenever you can.”
She said they will see the ads on television and hear them on radio, but a campaign is won by door knocking and one-on-one conversations.
“From this point forward so much of it is on your shoulders,” Wyman told the crowd. “I don’t want to put any Jewish guilt on you . . . but we all know what we’re here for. We’re here to make sure that every person we can in Connecticut that we get them to be on health insurance.”
Wyman, who was once an X-Ray technician, said getting people to have insurance and receive better access to services goes back to her roots.
“We want all the citizens of Connecticut to share the benefits of health reform, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or their income level,” Wyman said. “Everyone should be able to have health insurance. We’re one of the richest states in the union and we have too many people without insurance.”
When the new law kicks in those individuals who decide not to get insurance coverage will have to pay a $95 penalty on their tax return. Just last week the Obama administration decided there will be no penalties in 2014 for large businesses that don’t cover workers. Small businesses, with fewer than 50 workers, were already exempt from the rule.
Counihan said earlier this week that about 98 percent of large employers already offer coverage to their employers so he didn’t believe it would have a big impact on the roll-out of the program.
“The optics were worse than the substance,” Counihan said of the delay for large businesses.
He said the penalty for the individual mandate should probably be a little higher to encourage participation. Counihan, who worked on Massachusetts individual mandate before coming to Connecticut, said the penalty for that program was $219 — which was still a little low.
Counihan told the group Thursday that there are going to be a lot of people who don’t want the program to succeed.
“We believe we have a moral right to make this work,” he said.
The fundamental metric that will be used to determine whether the program has been a success will be the number of people who sign up, Counihan said acknowledging that a lot of the heavy lifting will be by the army of outreach workers.
“We’re going to prove that this works,” Counihan said.