Obamacare application help is on the way, officials say
It is going to take a community effort to provide people with assistance in applying for health insurance through the federally run Health Insurance Marketplace.
That’s according to two officials with the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Department – Director Fred Johnson and Economic Support Administrator Ronda Brown Anderson.
Johnson and Brown Anderson sat down with the Star-Observer Thursday, Oct. 10, to talk about the department’s involvement to date in preparing for the Affordable Care Act that will go into full effect on Jan. 1.
The insurance marketplace opened Oct. 1. People who don’t have insurance because their employer doesn’t provide it, they can’t afford it or they are unemployed have until Nov. 15 to purchase a policy if they want coverage to begin on Jan. 1.
By some accounts, navigating the online marketplace is difficult, and people may need personal assistance in completing an application.
Brown Anderson attended a state-led regional enrollment network meeting in Rice Lake on Aug. 21. She then helped coordinate a Sept. 23 meeting in St. Croix County attended by roughly 40 people representing hospitals, clinics and community organizations interested in helping people obtain insurance.
“What we walked away with is that there seem to be a lot of different efforts going on,” said Johnson. “But I didn’t get a strong sense that one entity over the other is going to take a strong lead.”
Johnson said he made it clear that the Health and Human Services Department is willing to partner with community entities offering enrollment assistance.
Brown Anderson said that while helping people buy health insurance falls outside of the department’s usual role of enrolling people in government assistance programs, it is doing what it can to help people navigate the marketplace.
The Health and Human Services office in New Richmond has one computer and one telephone dedicated for use by people wanting to purchase insurance through the exchange.
It’s a self-directed process, Brown Anderson said, but staff members do respond to people’s questions.
“We will be working to get people enrolled if they come forth and need assistance,” Johnson said.
He said an AmeriCorps worker will assist the 10 counties that are part of the Great Rivers Income Maintenance Consortium in answering people’s questions about the health insurance exchange.
Some department staff time also will be rearranged to deal with what is expected to be an influx for people applying for insurance toward the end of this year and into January.
“I think agencies and people are just trying to figure out what all this means – what the terms mean, what their roles and responsibilities are,” Brown Anderson said. “There’s certainly been a voiced interest in assisting. But (organizations) are trying to figure out what that means for them with the resources they have.”
Brown Anderson said an increase in calls to the Great Rivers Consortium indicates that there is an interest in the new insurance marketplace. September calls were up by 2,843 over August, and by 3,185 compared to July.
But Johnson added, “Our lobby and our general phones at Health and Human Services haven’t been overwhelmed with people coming in and asking for assistance, to this point.”
Workers in the business office at Hudson Hospital & Clinics have completed training to be insurance application counselors, but are awaiting certification by the state Department of Health Services.
Staff at Westfields Hospital in New Richmond just got notification that they are through the certification process, according to Brown Anderson.
She noted that state-certification isn’t required to assist people in navigating the application process.
The place to go to apply for insurance, if you don’t have it, is www.healthcare.gov.
Assistance with the process is available at www.e4health.org or by phoning the Health Insurance Marketplace Call Center at (800) 318-2596.
Closer to home, St. Croix County's Health and Human Services Economic Support Unit can be reached at (715) 246-8257. The number for the Great Rivers Income Maintenance call center is (888) 283-0012.
The Hudson Area Joint Library has computers available to the public that can be used to access www.healthcare.gov.