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Hunt on for health act navigators in Pittsburgh region

Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The Obama administration is scrambling to get the word out about the president's signature health care reform law.

With less than three weeks before the uninsured can begin enrolling for medical coverage in state online marketplaces, navigators who will help educate Pittsburgh-area residents have not been hired and the administration is rushing to enlist other help.

The president dispatched Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to announce a partnership with a labor union that will work in the coming weeks and months to inform the public about the law.

It's the latest in a string of efforts across the country in recent weeks to make sure uninsured Americans know that they will be required to have health insurance starting on Jan. 1. Open enrollment begins on Oct. 1 for people wishing to buy coverage in the state online marketplaces.

Critics point to the eleventh-hour push to educate individuals about the Affordable Care Act as an indication of the administration's struggle to get all the pieces in place on time.

“They still haven't finalized some regulations; they still haven't signed contracts with some of the insurers; and they're still not sure if the exchanges will work,” said Ed Haislmaier, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that opposes the overhaul. “It's not that surprising that they're out now trying to get people to market this.”

But Sebelius told reporters at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side that the online marketplaces will “be ready to go on Oct. 1.”

In the past week, Sebelius has announced marketing partnerships with several major drug store chains, including Camp Hill-based Rite Aid, which on Monday said it will place insurance agents in about half its 4,600 pharmacies to assist customers looking for a health plan.

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $67 million in grants to organizations, including five in Pennsylvania, that will hire so-called navigators to help individuals sign up for insurance.

It appears the administration waited to make a big marketing push because it wasn't sure the technology would be in place to run online marketplaces in which people will buy insurance, Haislmaier said.

Sebelius noted that while the enrollment period begins on Oct. 1, uninsured people can continue to sign up through March 31.

“It's not the end of the campaign. It's the beginning of the campaign,” she said.

The congressional Government Accountability Office warned this summer that with so much work left for the last minute, the timely and smooth launch of the online markets could not be guaranteed. But on Tuesday, several contractors building the government websites told a congressional committee they would be ready and that strong safeguards are in place to protect the privacy of personal data.

Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI Federal Inc., said her company is “confident” its part of the job will be ready when the state marketplaces open.

The Virginia-based contractor is building the federally run marketplaces that will be available in 35 states, including Pennsylvania.

Still up in the air is how much health insurance will cost when purchased through the marketplaces. Sebelius said her department is hoping to receive signed contracts from insurance companies this week and be able to release rate information just prior to Oct. 1.

Also scrambling at the last minute are several groups that received federal grants to hire navigators.

Resources for Human Development, a Philadelphia group that received about $950,000 to hire 20 navigators in several communities, including Pittsburgh, is “still hiring, still going through training,” Corporate Assistant Director Laura Line said.

She declined to provide an exact number of navigators the organization has hired and trained. But its local partner, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, was planning to post openings for three navigators on Wednesday, said Larry Klinger, the unit's program director for family and community services.

Klinger said he expects to hire, train and certify one full-time and two part-time navigators by Oct. 1.

“With a three-week turnaround we should be able to do it,” he said.

In the latest marketing push, Sebelius said members of the Service Employees International Union will go door to door, host forums and do other outreach work in 30 cities across the United States, including Pittsburgh.

“It's our moment to build power for working people by empowering them with the facts about the new health care law,” said Mary Kay Henry, the union's president.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 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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