News Column

Health Centers to Help Enroll Uninsured for Coverage in Florida

May 10, 2013

Dozens of Florida community health centers serving the poor and uninsured -- including 10 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- are eligible for a share of $8 million in federal funds to help uninsured individuals obtain health coverage when new marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act open Oct. 1, U.S. Health and Human Services officials announced Thursday.

Given the complexity of healthcare reform, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, those who are unfamiliar with the healthcare market will need personal help navigating the huge changes coming next year.

"This won't be easy,'' Sebelius said. "Many of the Americans we're trying to reach have spent their whole lives locked out or priced out of the healthcare market.''

In Florida, 48 health centers are eligible for $8 million to help educate consumers about health insurance, the new marketplace, qualified plans, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program. The centers also will help new consumers determine their eligibility, compare coverage options and obtain insurance.

Nationwide, about $150 million in federal funds has been set aside under the Affordable Care Act for health centers for hiring, training, conducting community outreach and education.

Federal officials are drawing on a national network of community health centers serving an estimated 21 million people a year to help educate individuals and enroll them in a health insurance program, Sebelius said.

"Health centers are especially well-equipped to help promote enrollment in neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most from the new marketplaces,'' she said.

The funds announced Thursday are only the latest piece of a broader effort by federal officials to help build enrollment, and to help consumers understand the new exchanges.

For instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will spend about $54 million for a "Navigator" program to train people who will help consumers understand the complicated world of exchanges, in which virtually everyone will be able to buy insurance at group rates, regardless of age or preexisting conditions.

This summer, Obama administration officials will travel the country to talk about enrollment, Sebelius said in a conference call with media Thursday. Federal officials have not yet announced dates or named the administration officials who will lead the campaign.

An estimated 1,200 health centers nationwide are eligible to apply for the funds announced Thursday, said Mary Wakefield, administrator for the Health Resources and Services Administration, which will review all applications. Among the criteria for awarding funds, she said, will be each applicant's most recent reporting of uninsured populations that they serve.

Those centers that receive funds will be required to submit quarterly reports documenting how many people they have helped to enroll, Wakefield said. All of the eligible health centers will receive a minimum of $50,000 plus a one-time expense stipend of $5,000.

Health centers have been helping the poor and uninsured enroll in Medicaid and obtain other coverage for years. But the new funds will nearly double the number of outreach workers at the centers from 4,000 to about 8,000, Wakefield said.

"We've had outreach workers that have been helping individuals enroll for insurance for decades,'' she said. "It's a function they carry out already, and that we've historically helped to support.''

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Source: Copyright Miami Herald (FL) 2013