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Last updated: Mon. Dec. 02, 2013 - 08:27 am EDT

HealthCare.gov website still under fire

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Need help with signing up for an ACA insurance plan?

Currently, Neighborhood Health Clinics, 1717 S. Calhoun St., is the only northeast Indiana site with fully certified insurance marketplace navigators to help people sign up for a health insurance exchange plan. For assistance, call 458-2641.

Staff or volunteers at these agencies are completing required certification with a goal of assisting people by Jan. 1:

*Community Action of Northeast Indiana (CANI), 227 E. Washington Blvd.; 423-3546

*RSVP, 3401 Lake Ave., Suite 4; 424-3505

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Strong criticism continues against the HealthCare.gov Website. The site crashed at the very start of the new Affordable Care Act's insurance marketplace rollout Oct. 1. Dismal results for first-month enrollment numbers were announced in mid-November. Only about 107,000 people had enrolled in a plan by Oct. 31, far below the agency's 500,000 first-month goal.

But little, if any, mention has been made of another likely reason for low enrollment, which is the layers of training and certification required by entities, most of them nonprofit organizations that willingly agreed months ago to become enrollment centers.

For example, RSVP in Fort Wayne has 52 volunteers who want to become certified insurance marketplace navigators. To date, none has attained that goal through no fault of their own, says Jean Joley, executive director.

"I have attorneys, CPAs, physician assistants and others who believe in this," Joley said of the ACA and her pool of volunteers. Each individual must be federally certified as an application counselor, which involves seven hours of training followed by an exam. There is no cost.

But Indiana has added another certification level for people who want to be insurance marketplace navigators. They must be certified by the Indiana Department of Insurance in the same way an insurance broker is. Aiding people to choose a health insurance plan is serious business, and counselors should know what they are doing, but for bare-bones-budget nonprofits such as RSVP, the process is costly, upwards of $150 a person. Agencies must also pay a fee to the Department of Insurance.

Community Action of Northeast Indiana was already an enrollment site for Medicaid and Hoosier Healthwise before the ACA. Covering Kids and Families Indiana (CKF-IN), a statewide partnership advocating for health coverage for all, provided online state certification training for staff at enrollment centers such as CANI. Still, the process was costly, said Pam Brookshire, the agency's vice president of community services.

Cost per person for the eight CANI staff members who recently became state certified: $64.40 for training; $85 to take the test; plus a $64.60 agency fee paid to the state Department of Insurance. The certificate costs were covered by CKF. The eight staff members now must take the federal training and test - and there's no time to waste.

"If people don't have navigator status by the first of the year, they can't help enroll people in HIP (Healthy Indiana Plan), Medicaid and Hoosier Healthwise," Brookshire said.

RSVP will soon be able to access state certification training so it can provide help to other agencies. Neighborhood Health Clinics has just received approval to be a state navigator training site. NHC is the only site in northeast Indiana that received federal funding to get staff trained and certified on the state level. Four employees completed three days of training in Indianapolis.

So while CANI is hustling to get its staff federally trained and certified, RSVP is hurrying to get its volunteers state certified; 26 are already federally certified.

"We're working to set that up so Jean (Joley) and her folks can work through the tax season to help people," said Mary Haupert, chief executive officer of NHC.

RSVP has IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers. Pairing insurance navigators with tax preparers will help reach those in the community who are uninsured or underinsured. The tax helpers will be reminding people of the penalty for not having insurance by March 30.

"We're going to educate people when they come," Joley said, adding the need for the service is significant. In Allen County alone, for example, there are nearly 3,500 uninsured individuals ages 55-64, according to Indiana Public Use Microdata Area. PUMA is a compilation of statistical data for specific geographical areas. People from other counties are also seeking help in Allen County to find a plan because only 50 percent of (Indiana) counties have any type of (insurance) navigator," Joley said.

Meanwhile, NHC is the lone site in the region with fully certified navigators - and they continue to have problems with the federal website, though things are improving, Haupert said. Her best advice: "If you don't qualify for a subsidy, go to an insurance broker or call the insurance company directly. Don't bother with the website."


Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.


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