$340K grant targets W.Pa. uninsured by hiring, training application counselors

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

More help is on the way for uninsured people in Western Pennsylvania who want to sign up for medical coverage this year under the Affordable Care Act.

With less than three months to enroll in coverage, and many uninsured people unfamiliar with the law's requirements and subsidies, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a $340,000 grant to several Pennsylvania organizations, including the Consumer Health Coalition, North Side, to hire and train certified application counselors.

The organizations, operating under a consortium called InsurePA, plan to hire six counselors and recruit 50 volunteer counselors across the state. InsurePA set a goal of providing assistance to at least 15,000 people in the state, said Alex Lehr O'Connell, the grants and development project manager for Public Health Management Corp., a Philadelphia nonprofit and lead agency for InsurePA.

“The demand for proper and neutral information (about the Affordable Care Act) is so great (that) we and many other organizations got involved as much as we could,” he said. “With these grant funds, we're really going to accelerate those efforts.”

InsurePA also established a toll-free number, 855-486-9331, to provide information and connect people with counselors.

Less than 12,000 Pennsylvanians selected plans on HealthCare.gov in October and November, the latest months for which there are data. An estimated 1.2 million people in the state are uninsured.

Federal officials have said about 1.6 million Americans signed up for coverage in December either through HealthCare.gov, the federal website that serves as the online portal for Pennsylvania and 35 other states, or on 14 individual state websites. That was more than quadruple the number for the first two months of the government's sign-up period, when technical glitches prevented many users from completing the process.

With December's surge, 2.1 million people signed up in the first three months, meaning more than twice as many will have to enroll in the second three months for the Obama administration to hit its goal of 7 million sign-ups by March 31, when the enrollment period ends.

In addition to website problems, sign-ups may have been hurt by uninsured people's previous experiences with the high cost of health coverage.

About 62 percent of uninsured adults cited high costs as the main reason for going without coverage prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to a survey funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The results of the survey, conducted by the Urban Institute, were released separately from the grant award announcement.

“These survey findings show that enrollment efforts directed at potential marketplace consumers need to stress the affordability of the newly available plans,” said Kathy Hempstead, who leads coverage issues for the foundation.

Certified application counselors receive the same training and background checks as federally funded health care navigators but are typically volunteers or paid by private groups.

There are only three navigators in Allegheny County, which has the second-highest percentage of uninsured people in the state. There are more than 30 organizations, including health centers and advocacy groups, that have trained an unknown number of certified application counselors in the Pittsburgh region.

The Consumer Health Coalition plans to hire two counselors in Pittsburgh using its share of the funding, Lehr O'Connell said. He did not know how many volunteers may be trained in Western Pennsylvania.

Benefits Data Trust, Pennsylvania Health Access Network and Enroll America also are participating in InsurePA.

InsurePA will target Allegheny County and the five-county Philadelphia region, which combined have an estimated 40 percent of the state's 1.2 million uninsured.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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