With just weeks until a centerpiece of the health care reform law launches, the task of spreading the word about new health insurance marketplaces has fallen, in part, to local nonprofits across the country.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made a brief "appearance" at one such informational event in Camden, N.J., Monday.
President Obama's top health official spoke via speakerphone to about 50 people from more than a dozen Camden area nonprofits.
"First of all, open enrollment starts in about three weeks," Sebelius said, while between events in North Jersey. (She spoke in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, at a similar event.) "We are going to be ready to have millions of Americans gain access to the kind of health security and peace of mind that comes with quality, affordable health insurance."
According to U.S. Census estimates, about 900,000 New Jerseyans — roughly 10 percent of the state's population — lack health insurance. In Camden County about 54,000 are uninsured.
Many attendees of Monday's event said their community-based organizations are dedicated to chipping away at that number, working to connect clients with relevant information about the Affordable Care Act.
Sebelius said their work is "absolutely essential to this effort."
"People are hungry for information," Sebelius said. "They want to know where to go to find it, and they want to talk to people who they think understand their situation."
The grassroots alliance between Sebelius and local nonprofits is partly strategic and partly out of necessity.
"Here in New Jersey we have very limited funds for outreach. Very limited," said Maura Collinsgru, the health policy specialist with New Jersey Citizen Action, the progressive consumer advocacy group that led the session. "It is on the community-based organizations, the nonprofits, to be able to spread this word to those we know."
With open enrollment for the online marketplaces quickly approaching, Collinsgru says pressure is mounting to get key information out there.
"It's going to take a tremendous effort to enroll as many of those 900,000 people as possible here in New Jersey," she said. "So we do feel a real sense of urgency."
The exchanges — where individuals can shop for plans or access subsidized options — open Oct. 1. The open enrollment period ends March 31, 2014.
"There's a sense of urgency, because it's a window of opportunity, right?" said Carol Wolff, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center, which helped organize Monday's session. "What a lost opportunity if we don't get to the people who can have that option for health care."