Meet a navigator: One of the guides through Obamacare
Mariann White, a public affairs organizer at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, poses for a portrait at the organization's Concord office on Monday afternoon, September 30, 2013. White completed the 20 hours of training required to be a navigator for patients looking for options within the Affordable Care Act. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
This morning, Mariann White planned to get up early and pick up her big white binder for just one more cram session.
She’d have just a few more hours until the start of her new job. It’s kind of the same as her old job, though.
White, a public affairs organizer with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, is one of nine people, called navigators, trained to help New Hampshire residents work their way through the new health insurance marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act.
“I got into public health because I want to help people,” White said yesterday at the Planned Parenthood office in Concord, where she spent the afternoon clicking through her online training and flipping through the accompanying binder.
“I think the Affordable Care Act is the greatest opportunity, if not in my life, than in lifetimes to come. I want to be part of making sure people in our state have access to affordable, quality health care.”
The Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, is President Obama’s attempt to extend health care coverage to all Americans, in large part through the marketplaces.
The marketplaces, also called exchanges, are expected to open today even if federal lawmakers couldn’t reach a deal to continue funding the government before their midnight deadline.
The marketplaces are basically websites where people can purchase insurance from a set of qualifying plans. The federal government offers tax credits and other financial help to ensure that low-income people can afford the coverage sold there.
Whether someone is eligible for a tax credit or not depends on a number of factors, and a handful of forms.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Bi-State Primary Care Association received federal grants to help people understand and fill out those forms.
Planned Parenthood trained White, Senior Operations Manager Holly Schiavoni and staff members at the organization’s health centers in Claremont, Derry, Exeter, Keene, Manchester and West Lebanon, for a total of nine existing staff who are able to be navigators, said Senior Policy Advisor Jennifer Frizzell.
The organization also hired two additional navigators and is still looking for one more, Frizzell said.
None of the navigators here or across the country have seen the actual forms yet, which has raised some alarms in other states. Navigators in Ohio and Arizona told The Wall Street Journal they have not hired nearly as many staff as they originally hoped, and those who are on board haven’t been able to access digital training to test run the enrollment process.
“This is very much coming together in real-time,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of an Ohio navigator organization told the Journal.
White said she isn’t worried.
“It might be touch-and-go in the beginning, but we were given a lot of really great training documents,” and they will all be available for the navigators to consult once the marketplaces open, she said.
Navigators can’t recommend specific plans. Neither can people called in-person assisters, who will be paid with a separate federal grant. Organizations receiving that grant will be announced this morning at a rally in Manchester.
For specific advice on which plan to buy, people should visit a professional insurance agent or broker.
For the next few weeks, the organization is focused on building “the on-ramp to enrollment,” Frizzell said.
That means holding events such as a press conference this morning in Manchester, and delivering materials to libraries and other community centers where people can find out how to start.
The navigators at Planned Parenthood centers won’t be helping people who just drop in; people will need to schedule a 30-minute appointment in advance. The health centers and other community locations will have big blue boxes with cards that people can fill out to request an appointment.
Though the marketplace opens today, people have until Dec. 15 to purchase insurance in order to be covered starting Jan. 1. The marketplace will remain open until March 31 during this first enrollment period; next fall, enrollment will be from Oct. 1 to Dec. 7.
“We don’t expect to enroll everyone in the first few weeks. I expect that within a few weeks out from the launch, we’ll have a full appointment schedule,” Frizzell said.
The anticipation and focus on the marketplace’s launch today “has felt like a lot of ‘hurry up and wait,’ ” White said. “But we have a saying around here: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ We’ve been given a great opportunity and I’m not nervous.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)