CHAMPAIGN — Got questions about Obamacare?
Help is on the way through an army of assistors being hired and trained to help with insurance enrollment.
With less than three weeks until a six-month open enrollment period begins Oct. 1, nearly 1,000 people have registered for training to help throughout Illinois, and over half of them have been trained so far, says Mike Claffey, spokesman for the state's new health marketplace.
The marketplace is the online entry point to health coverage and financial assistance being offered to meet the federal Affordable Care Act that requires nearly everyone to have health insurance starting next year.
In the first year alone, assistors may be helping more than three-quarters of a million people sign up for coverage in Illinois.
The state has projected enrolling about 782,000 people in 2014 — 486,000 through the commercial insurance plans in the marketplace, and 296,000 people in Medicaid, the government's health program for the needy.
In-person counselors being hired through 44 community agencies throughout the state with the help of $27 million in federal grant money are expected to complete online training and take part in two days of state-sponsored training, says Stephani Becker, project director at Health & Disability Advocates.
Conducting training for counselors this week at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, Becker said the state training includes a primer on the Affordable Care Act, barriers and paths to getting people covered, and the basics of insurance terminology.
A number of the 60 people at the training in Champaign were from public health departments from the 17 counties for which the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is coordinating the counselor grant program.
The program calls on health departments statewide to serve as assistance points in the enrollment process, so their staffs are a key focus of counselor training.
"This is a huge investment of state and federal money and we need to take advantage of it," Becker said.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District had about 30 of its own counselors at the training this week. A few are new hires, but most are public health employees who are being cross-trained to double-up on Obamacare enrollment duties, says public health Administrator Julie Pryde.
"We're public health," she said. "We know when the grant ends, we'll still be doing the work."
The lobby at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District building is undergoing final stages of remodeling to better accommodate enrollment, and one area is also being turned into a computer room where people will be able to fill out enrollment applications online, Pryde said.
"Anyone who walks into our building will be assessed," she said. "We'll work hard to get people hooked up for whatever they're eligible for."
A few temporary counselor jobs remain to be filled for health districts in the area, one at the Vermilion County Health Department, which needs a bilingual Spanish speaker, and two at the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department, Pryde said.
Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center, Mattoon, is also still hiring to fill some counselor jobs.
The health system also received grant funding to provide enrollment counselors in its area and plans to cover seven counties with seven counselors, says Sarah Bush Lincoln Grant Specialist Molly Daniel.
Meanwhile, Campaign for Better Health Care plans to use its grant money to spread five counselors over about 18 counties, says the organization's Executive Director Jim Duffett.
The counselors will include three current staff members and two new hires — with these counselors expected to be flexible, motivated, good at public speaking, have a vehicle and expecting to be out speaking days, evenings and weekends, he said.
The job runs through June 30, "and the people we hired, they totally understand that they've got to be on call," Duffett said.
The five counselors have a wide area to cover, but they'll be coordinating with hundreds of other assistors helping with enrollment in those counties, he said.
Campaign for Better Health Care's counselors will zero in on churches, business organizations and community colleges, Duffet said.
They'll be available to help people enroll at various speaking events, but they'll also be doing a lot of referrals to assistance locations such as public health departments, he said.
But, he adds, "we think most people will want to go back home (first) and look at the plans that will be available Oct. 1."