Oct. 21--HARLINGEN -- A nonprofit group will begin opening offices throughout the Rio Grande Valley this week to help residents "navigate" their way through the Affordable Care Act.
Several "navigators" at MHP are getting ready to help people understand the health care law known as Obamacare and the federal government's online insurance registration website called the Health Insurance Marketplace.
Cliff Clark, program coordinator for Cameron and Willacy counties, said MHP used to stand for Migrant Health Promotions. However, the Weslaco-based organization has expanded its services so it now calls itself MHP.
The navigators are being trained through federal grants to show people how to use the Marketplace, also known as the health insurance exchange.
"We currently have seven navigators who are also community health workers who are finalizing their certification process as we speak, and it's a federal certification process," he said Friday. "They have to undergo many hours of training for that. The navigator at that point is able to assist people with all aspects of the application process, providing unbiased service to folks in just laying out all of their possible options that they may qualify for, for health coverage."
The service will be free to the public.
There are different plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace, and the navigators will help people figure out which one works best for them.
"What we'll do is, we will show them each and every plan that is offered at the level that they qualify for, also with taking into consideration the amount of assistance that they qualify for," Clark said. "For example, they could qualify for a premium tax credit. They could also qualify for reductions in cost sharing. Depending on their income level, they will qualify for more or less of that."
The healthcoverageguide website says that cost-sharing refers to how health plan costs are shared between employers and employees.
He said navigators will not try to influence people's decisions in any way.
"The decision, and we stress this a lot, is their's," he said. "There's nothing that we do to sway that. It's basically informing them, these are your options, and then having them make an informed decision based on the information we provide."
Clark said privacy is also a premium. He said the navigators at some point will be working with sensitive personal information and he emphasized that it will be kept confidential.
"It will in no way, shape or form be shared at all, ever," he said. "That is actually our obligation as a grant recipient to follow federal procedures as far as confidentiality."
He said MHP hopes to help at least 4,200 people by August through at least some portion of signing up for the program.
This assistance could include consulting people on filling out applications, creating accounts or some other aspect of the process.
He said those coming in for an appointment with a navigator will need to have their Social Security number. If they carry a green card, they will need to bring that with them. They will also need the employer and income information for themselves and every other member of the household. These can include pay stubs, W-2s or tax information from the previous year.
Clark said another important issue for those applying for the new health care plan is finding out if they qualify for Medicaid or CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program).
"If the Marketplace determines that those folks could qualify for Medicaid and CHIP, those applications would be forwarded to those institutions in Texas to make the final determination of their eligibility of Medicaid or CHIP," Clark said.
Many people have expressed concern about being fined for not securing health insurance. The fine, called the individual responsibility requirement, is not automatic.
Homeless people are exempt, as are people currently facing foreclosure or experiencing the death of an immediate family member. He said those people can apply for a hardship waiver.
However, that waiver doesn't necessarily apply to people who are unemployed.
"Anyone who is collecting unemployment, that is considered income ultimately," he said. "That would be their projected income at the time that they apply for the services. Obviously folks' situations change throughout the year and they can make more or less money depending on how things go."
There are exemptions you can ask for."
"If there is a gap in coverage that is fewer than 90 days, you actually won't be penalized," he said. "The IRS exclusively grants this exemption as the short gap in coverage exemption. But if there are folks that simply don't do it then they will be penalized at the time they file their taxes."
Those wanting more information about the new health care system or who want to make an appointment with a navigator can call 956-986-3600 ext. 1011.
(c)2013 Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas)
Visit Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) at www.valleymorningstar.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Help available for online enrollment
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