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Nov. 1 will be the beginning of the third enrollment period for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and enrollment advisers are getting their ducks in a row.

By Rose Hoban

As the third enrollment period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act approaches, federal officials signaled their continued support for efforts to get more people signed up for coverage in the coming years.

Officials with the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced a third round of funding for nonprofits to do outreach to get people signed up for insurance. And unlike the first two rounds of annual funding, this round of grants will be for three years.

“We’re happy to see the navigator grants because we know people really need help getting through the process of enrolling and re-enrolling,” said Sorien Schmidt, head of Enroll America, a not-for-profit organization that’s coordinating sign-ups for the exchanges in 11 states.

North Carolina had the third highest rate of enrollment in marketplace insurance plans last year out of the 40 states using the federal online marketplace.

In all, North Carolina organizations will receive $3.6 million of $67 million being distributed nationwide.

Schmidt said the funding would help her group and others reach more people who still need some hand-holding as they sign up, many of them for the first time.

National model

Sean Driscoll from Legal Aid of North Carolina said his organization would be using this round of funding to target “harder to reach populations, like rural people, non-English speakers and people with disabilities,” he said. “We’ll be reaching out as far as we can.”

Other target populations include migrant workers; people in rural, mountainous areas; young adults and those graduating from college; and veterans.

Enrollment_GrantsLegal Aid will receive $2.6 million over the coming three years for its enrollment outreach, which Driscoll said would be “aggressive.”

The group has a track record now to point to. For the first enrollment period, in 2013, Legal Aid coordinated all of the state’s enrollment efforts, establishing an online “connector” and setting up a 1-800 number that anyone can call to schedule an appointment in their area.

Many states have now copied North Carolina’s ideas for getting people enrolled.

Driscoll said the use of “enroll-athons” generated a lot of sign-ups and publicity.

“We’ll tell people to come here during this four-hour window, and you can meet with a navigator in person,” he said. “We have ones in Raleigh that are huge and then we have ones in Pembroke where 20 people may come.” He said the events help build momentum and attention from the media.

Legal Aid also used law students from around the state who were trained to assist people with their applications. In the past two years, students spent weekends, holidays and other free times doing outreach.

“The enrollment events are almost a festival-style atmosphere, celebratory,” said Jennifer Simmons, head navigator for Legal Aid, adding that sometimes the events got “raucous.”

“We find the navigators really love working there, because it’s a chance to work in the same room with colleagues, talk about issues that come up,” she said, noting that navigators are able to really dig in and spend the time that an individual consumer needs.

“The impact is far greater than just the people in the room; it’s a place to come and ask questions,” Simmons said. “This is a web-and phone-based system, so we turn into the face of the marketplace here in North Carolina.”

“The events also remind people of the deadlines,” she said.

Still don’t know

Schmidt said a poll of the uninsured conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a national research firm, PerryUndem, found that about half the people who lacked health insurance did so because they looked at the federal marketplace and thought the products would be too expensive. The other half still didn’t know much about the Affordable Care Act and how it might affect them.

And 60 percent of the respondents they talked to “were still confused about subsidies and applying,” she said. Seventy percent of the respondents wanted one-on-one help.

Schmidt said that widely reported requests for premium increases won’t really affect people who are eligible for tax subsidies, because as the premiums increase subsidies will also grow.

“The financial help is based on consumers ability to pay,” she said. “We believe there will still be affordable plans for people in the marketplace.”

But she said she and her colleagues won’t know what this year’s premiums will be until closer to the enrollment period, which starts Nov. 1.

Enrollment extends to the end of January.

Schmidt also said narrow networks of doctors shouldn’t be a problem for most enrollees.

“The cost savings come from working with certain providers who are willing to negotiate a reduced rate,” she said. “That’s the private market in action.”

But she also said consumers should do their research to make sure there are doctors in their networks who meet their needs before they hit the “enroll” button.




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