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N.H. gets input on educating public about health law

From Old Home Days to Home Depot, New Hampshire residents should find information about the federal health overhaul law everywhere they turn, and soon, advocates told state Insurance Department officials Friday.

Commissioner Roger Sevigny and his staff hosted a forum Friday for consumers, business owners and health care providers to get advice on how the state should help residents learn about and navigate the new insurance markets required under the law. Led in large part by people who work for health care-related organizations, the discussion focused on key populations to target, how best to reach them and the role of those doing the outreach.

Shawn LaFrance, executive director of Foundation for Healthy Communities, said the state needs to think outside the box in terms of outreach. When his group wanted to educate men about the importance of cholesterol screening, it set up outside of Home Depot and auto service stations Saturday mornings.

“We got a lot of uptick at those sites, because those aren’t people who typically go to health fairs or senior centers or places like that,” he said.

Nanette Avril of Franconia said she belongs to a group that volunteered for President Obama’s re-election campaign and have stayed active in their communities since the election. They are hoping to help spread the word about the health reform law, she said.

“We saw during the last several years . . . that up in the North Country, it’s very difficult to reach people if you just wait for them to come to you,” she said. “We have things over the summer like our Old Home Days, or our fairs, that are natural places (to target). People who maybe never go into town, they come to these things.”

Other participants suggested incorporating outreach efforts into sporting events, or including social media, schools, soup kitchens and churches. People who might warrant special attention include racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities and young adults who in the past haven’t seen the need to get insurance, the group said, and the state should rely on its existing network of social service and health care agencies to do the work.

Under the overhaul law, new insurance marketplaces will offer individuals and their families a choice of private health plans resembling what workers at major companies already get. The government will help many middle-class households pay their premiums, while low-income people will be referred to safety-net programs they might qualify for. Enrollment starts Oct. 1 with coverage taking effect Jan. 1. After that, virtually everyone in the country will be required by law to have health insurance or face fines.

New Hampshire opted not to establish its own marketplace, and it is partnering with the federal government to regulate insurers and provide consumer assistance. But the process has been slowed by persistent disagreements about who has the final say over implementing the law.

Mike Rollo of the American Cancer Society’s New Hampshire action network said that process needs to speed up.

“We’re very concerned the department is taking a wait-and-see approach with consumer assistance,” he said. “If you wait until open enrollment has already started to see if you really need this, you’ve missed your opportunity.”

Sevigny said the state is taking “millimeter” steps forward, but he can’t act on any of the advice he received Friday until the Legislature allows him to spend federal money that has been awarded to the state.

“We’re doing a great job putting the tentacles on this octopus, but what hasn’t happened ... is putting the head on it so the tentacles can work,” he said. “In order for me to have the head, I need the funding.”

The Legislature’s fiscal committee delayed action last month on accepting $340,000 to start setting up a program to help consumers explore their options under the new law, and another $5 million in grant funding is in the Insurance Department’s budget request. While the $5 million amount is more important, the smaller grant also would have been a significant help because it would’ve allowed the state to hire a consumer assistance coordinator, Sevigny said.

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