Health insurance navigators hustle to hire, train workers

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 8, 2013 

Starting in October, you might be able to sign up for health insurance at a folding table outside your grocery store, in the waiting room at your hospital emergency department or at church functions.

The effort to cover nearly a million people in the state -- about 733,000 uninsured and others who are underinsured -- through the Health Insurance Marketplace will show up in places expected and unexpected.

Three groups in the state received grants to help people navigate the new marketplace, including the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce, which received $234,000.

Larry Holman, president of the chamber, said the group applied to have its health insurance navigators cover the area from Orangeburg to Charleston, a stretch where an estimated 229,000 people are uninsured.

Holman said the group received a smaller grant than it applied for, so the chamber's nine navigators are expected to be responsible for eight counties in the Lowcountry.

Once the enrollment period begins Oct. 1, Holman and the navigators will be out in local communities and at neighborhood events to help sign up uninsured or underinsured residents.

"It will be a grassroots effort," he said. "We'll be at festivals, churches and lots of neighborhood events. We have 12 organizations working with us. It's not going to be easy, with so much misinformation out there, but we're looking forward to serving the community."

Maryland-based DECO Recovery Management, which received $1.2 million, said it would borrow tactics from one of the nation's most successful sales forces.

"It's like the Girl Scouts (selling cookies) -- you go to shopping centers and set up tables to capture people as they come and go," said DECO vice president Andy Foland. DECO provides medical assistance eligibility management for hospitals.

Federally qualified health centers in the state were awarded a $2.4 million grant to hire and train workers specifically to help their patients and residents of their surrounding communities through the process. Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services in Okatie -- which received $144,514 of that grant to assist and enroll people in health care plans -- has said part of its strategy is to partner with Hilton Head, Beaufort Memorial and Coastal Carolina hospitals to reach people.

Under the Affordable Care Act, everyone will be required to have health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty. Some people with low incomes will be eligible for tax deductions to offset the cost of the insurance purchased through the exchange.

Holman said half of the Black Chamber of Commerce's navigators have completed a 20-hour certification course; the other half is expected to finish by next Sunday.

Several Republican state attorneys general, including South Carolina's Alan Wilson, sent a letter in August to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raising the potential for security concerns by poorly trained or vetted navigators. They also worried about the lack of punishment under the Affordable Care Act for navigators who steal private information.

Foland says the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was passed in 1996 for this sort of situation. It calls for a $25,000 fine for every health privacy violation. For a large national company such as DECO, a navigator committing privacy violations could have huge ramifications.

"We understand that there is a stewardship involved in this that we take very seriously," Foland said. "We have a large auditing component, and we have a background in health care."

Last week, a U.S. Census Bureau report said 19.4 percent of South Carolina's population -- or about 733,000 people -- is uninsured. Both Beaufort and Jasper counties were ranked in the top five among counties in the state for the highest percentage of uninsured.

Beaufort County, which has about 26,700 uninsured residents, ranked fifth at 21.6 percent. Jasper County's 5,725 uninsured residents accounted for 27.4 percent of its population, the highest percentage in the state.

Joey Holleman of The (Columbia) State and Matt McNab of The Beaufort Gazette contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

Related content: Beaufort County has 5th-highest percentage of uninsured in SC, challenging health professionals, Sept. 3, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/09/03/2663355/beaufort-county-has-5th-highest.html

Group will help SC residents sign up for insurance, Aug. 15, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/08/15/2631906/group-will-help-sc-residents-sign.html

Okatie center to help enroll uninsured to comply with federal health insurance law, July 18, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/07/18/2583090/okatie-center-to-help-enroll-uninsured.html

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