Health and Human Services Executive Director Gwendolyn Warren explains the benefits of a $600,000 federal grant to help residents enroll in plans offered by the Affordable Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously approved acceptance of a $600,000 federal grant Sept. 5 that will fund the hiring and support of “navigators,” who will assist residents with the new insurance coverage exchange.
No matching funds are required. Open enrollment in the Affordable Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace begins Oct. 1.
Gwendolyn Warren, the county’s executive director of Health and Human Services, requested that the commission accept the grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be used with a cooperative agreement to support navigators in federally facilitated and state partnership exchanges. The $600,000 will be used to hire and train navigators and market their services to county residents through the soon-to-be created Pinellas County Health Coverage Exchange.
Warren also asked approval to subcontract with the Florida Department of Health to recruit, hire, train and supervise health exchange navigators and volunteers for the county’s exchange, which is a collaborative effort with the state DOH, the Juvenile Welfare Board, St. Petersburg College, St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Clearwater Free Clinic and Young Men’s Christian Association.
The county plans to hire up to 15 navigators to assist residents at 22 access points located throughout Pinellas. Navigators will be trained through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program and will receive cultural and linguistic training from St. Petersburg College.
Navigators will educate residents on available health plan options, assist with the selection of and enrollment in a chosen health plan and make sure the participant knows about options to change plans and available tax credits.
Warren said an estimated 200,000 of the 921,319 people living in Pinellas County are uninsured. The one-year project targets individuals and families with incomes ranging between 0 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Warren’s goal is to enroll at least 16,875 in a federal health plan during the project, which could save the county and local hospitals more than $19.2 million a year. Many of the people being targeted for enrollment currently receive health care through the county’s plan for uninsured residents. Hospitals will save by having fewer unpaid bills because more of the county’s population will be insured.
Currently, the state estimates the cost of providing health care for the uninsured and indigent in Pinellas County at $2 billion a year.
Warren said county residents could enroll in the new federal insurance exchange on their own, but as with any new government program, they could have problems, which is what officials hope to avoid by using the navigators.
“This is a group of people who may not have had insurance before,” she said.
At least one commissioner asked about the lack of radio ads in Warren’s marketing budget of $25,125. Franco Ripple, director of Public Affairs and Producer/Host at CBS Radio Tampa Bay, not only objected to the lack of radio advertising in the budget, but also commented on the small percentage of the budget being spent on marketing. He suggested eliminating some of the full time employees and increasing the marketing budget for all types of media.
Warren explained that for the first phase of enrollment, the effort would be more about informing residents already in the system and assisting them with getting signed up for the federal program. She was leery of a big push to inform the masses without having a staff in place to help them understand the process.
“Our clients are largely uninsured,” County Administrator Bob LaSala said of the residents currently receiving services through Health and Human Services. “We already have this captive audience we can enroll.”
Warren pointed out that having only 15 people to help more than 16,000 applicants would be challenging.
“This staff is small given the task,” she said.
Resident Regina Brown, who was speaking for herself and four others, said she was not in favor of accepting the grant for Obamacare. She asked if staff would be liable if mistakes were made during the enrollment process. Warren told the commission that since the state was doing the hiring, the state would carry the liability.
Brown also said the county’s project seemed to go against the state’s wishes. Lawmakers have refused to expand the state’s eligibility for Medicaid. Commission Chair Ken Welch said the state had reversed its position on the Affordable Health Care Act and those currently enrolled for Medicaid are eligible. Regardless of the state’s position, Affordable Health Care Act is a federal program and Pinellas County citizens are eligible to participate, he said.
Brown’s main objection seemed to target Obamacare. She said there were too many unanswered questions.
“Obamacare plans are not finalized,” she said.
She added that the grant was a way to “sell bad ideas to good people.”
“We’re not going to fight Obamacare at 315 Court Street,” Welch said. “I fully support this and hope the board approves it.”
“Big ideas take bold action and leadership,” said Commissioner Janet Long, who admitted that the program likely would need “tweaks” to improve it as it was implemented.
“None of us can afford the enormous cost of the uninsured,” she said. “… I’m extremely supportive because it will help our citizens.”