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Health care navigators sign up just 10 in Allegheny County

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Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 11:45 p.m.
 

Navigators hired to help uninsured people sign up for medical coverage under President Obama's signature health insurance law have enrolled just 10 people in the past two months in Allegheny County.

The number reinforces the challenges the administration has in getting people signed up for health insurance after the troubled rollout of Obamacare.

Technical glitches on a government website largely prevented people from gaining coverage initially.

Navigators are paid to help people understand the health care law and enroll for coverage. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit has received an undisclosed share of a $950,000 federal grant to hire and train one full-time and two part-time navigators for the county.

“There's not really enough of us out there,” said Laura Line, an official with Resources for Human Development, a Philadelphia organization that received the grant and contracted with the AIU. Statewide, the group has 30 navigators in 10 counties.

The Allegheny County navigators helped about 1,000 people over the phone and at 50 educational and sign-up events from mid-October through Dec. 10. The group said some of those people may have signed up for coverage on their own through the government website.

The navigators got off to a late start in Allegheny County. The first worker to be hired and trained started in mid-October — two weeks after enrollment started for the health care law, known as Obamacare.

In addition to technical challenges with the website, the navigators say they must overcome people's lack of understanding about the law and whether it applies to them.

Allegheny County has the second-highest number of uninsured adults ages 18 to 65 in the state, an estimated 93,000.

Health care navigators in Allegheny County signed up only three people for plans during October and November, when technical errors and high-volume traffic plagued the website. In the 10 days since Dec. 1, when federal officials said hardware upgrades and software fixes made it work for most users, Homestead-based AIU enrolled seven people.

Richard Olague, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which awarded the grant for the navigators, declined to answer questions about the low enrollment figures.

Allegheny County navigators may get more help. Resources for Human Development and Allegheny Intermediate Unit are awaiting confirmation that they will receive money to hire three more navigators, officials said.

Resources for Human Development has applied for a grant from a consortium of foundations to hire one navigator. Allegheny Intermediate Unit expects to receive funding from the redistribution of a $178,000 grant given to Cardon Outreach for work in Pennsylvania.

Texas-based Cardon in September said it would return $800,000 in navigator grants for work in four states because it faced too much scrutiny from congressional Republicans and some state insurance commissioners over its programs.

Many people procrastinated about signing up on the website the government set up for Pennsylvanians and people in 35 other states, officials from the AIU and Resources for Human Development told Tribune-Review reporters and editors during a meeting on Tuesday.

With a deadline looming on Monday to sign up for coverage that starts on Jan. 1, people are calling the county's three navigators for help, said Shannon McGee, navigator team leader for AIU.

“When they know it's crunch time, they will sit down and enroll,” McGee said.

Through Nov. 30, more than 11,700 Pennsylvanians selected a plan on Healthcare.gov, the government said last week. Nationwide, 365,000 selected coverage through the end of last month, far short of the Obama administration's goal of signing up 1.2 million people in the first two months.

The administration hopes to enroll 7 million people by March 31, when the open enrollment period ends and uninsured people will face tax penalties.

Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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