New online marketplaces, or health exchanges, are a mainstay of the federal health law. They're often described as a Travelocity of sorts for health insurance.

Enrollment starts in October, but the challenge now, according to the federal officials running them, is prepping so people know about the plans and are able to enroll.

 

U.S. officials have just issued special grants in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and elsewhere to help people navigate the maze. The grants are specifically intended to train "navigators," independent from insurance companies, to assist people.

"The biggest challenge, according to the recent studies we've seen, is there are a lot of people who don't realize that they will be eligible to purchase insurance on the marketplace and are not aware that there will also be available tax subsidies for that," says Cheri Rinehart, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers.

Different strategies

Rinehart's group was one of five in Pennsylvania to receive a federal navigator grant Thursday. The effort will involve utilizing the network of more than 200 community health center sites across the state.

Resources for Human Development was another grant recipient. Laura Line, who is overseeing the nearly million-dollar project, says efforts will focus on the state's 10 counties with the highest rates of uninsured. The plan is to reach nearly 600,000 people through already existing networks.

"For example, the taxicab alliance here in Philadelphia, they're one of our supporting agencies. And one of their biggest issues is health-care coverage," says Line. "When we talked with them, they were very enthusiastic about our helping their constituents find health-care coverage."

Line's group will be directly working with 21 area agencies.

The Mental Health Consumers Association also got a grant. Lynn Keltz, president of the group, says efforts will be geared toward reaching people with mental-health needs. They'll have a 1-800 number people can call. A trained navigator could then follow up and meet that person.

"We hope we can show them there are mental health benefits available to them now," says Keltz. "In private insurance up until health-care reform, there really wasn't good health insurance guaranteed to people with mental health needs."

Plans offered through the marketplace will have to cover certain benefits that many companies didn't include in the past. People may also be eligible for subsidies, depending on their income. Come January, a federal mandate kicks in, requiring people to have some sort of coverage.

Slim resources

Some advocates worry that in states with federally run exchanges, not enough resources will be available to assist people with signing up.

"You know it's almost a given that it's going to be difficult to get the whole state covered with that amount of money," says Dena Mottola-Jaborska with New Jersey Citizen Action, an unsuccessful grant applicant.


Mottola-Jaborska is concerned that the people who could benefit most from coverage and the income-based subsidies won't know about them or how to apply. She hopes private groups and volunteers will help a little with this.

New Jersey Policy Perspective research estimates the grants to New Jersey represent 10 percent of what's needed to help some 900,000 newly eligible residents.

Combined, Pennsylvania New Jersey and Delaware received about $5 million in federal funding to support these outreach activities. States running their own marketplaces, such as Maryland, were eligible for a lot more money.

Delaware 'well-positioned'

One grant totaling $500,000 went to an organization serving Delaware that even state leaders are not familiar with: Chatman, LLC, a company based in Maryland.

"We're looking forward to finding out more about their navigator plans," says Jim Grant, a state health official overseeing marketplace efforts. "We didn't know anything about them going in."

Even so, Grant is optimistic people will have the help they need in Delaware. The state has been doing a lot of its own preparation for the marketplace, training nearly 70 guides. These new federal navigators will undergo a different training.

"We think we're very well positioned to help everyone who seeks affordable care through the marketplace."