Even In Well-Funded Colorado, Tough To Help People Enroll In Obamacare

December 23, 2013

Despite White House and state efforts to promote the Affordable Care Act, some people still don't have health insurance or any idea how to sign up for it.

Take Corryn Young, a 32-year-old dental hygienist in Fort Collins, Colorado. She knows she needs to get health insurance but is a little vague on the details.

“What my income would qualify me for, when I need to be signed up, what type of deductibles they have to offer - that kind of stuff overwhelms me,” she says.

There are people available to help Young with all those questions. The White House has set aside more than a quarter of a billion dollars nationally to pay navigators to give people face-to-face help buying coverage and applying for new subsidies to make it more affordable.

There are navigators working at 57 assistance organizations across Colorado – everyone from county health departments to local clinics to the state trucking association. Neighboring states Nebraska and Arizona aren't embracing the health care law like Colorado is. They have just two navigator organizations each and about $2 per uninsured person to spend on assisters. Colorado has almost $24 per person.

But all the effort had netted about 23,000 customers for private insurance in the state's marketplace as of Dec. 14 – only about 17 percent of the way to the state's goal of enrolling 136,000 people by the end of March.

Navigators like Barbara Sigmon will sit down with Young and go over every aspect of her application. Colorado got some of the most money per capita of any state to hire navigators. There's generally a lot more in-person help available in states that are cooperating with the health care law than those that aren't.

'It's Starting To Pick Up'

So there are dozens of people like Sigmon across Colorado, just waiting for people to ask for help. So far, she says business is, “sort of hit and miss, it's either busy or it's pretty slow. But it's starting to pick up and gain momentum as we do more of these outreach programs, so that people know we're here.”

Sigmon is at a table near the exit of a local supermarket in Colorado Springs. It was set up by Connect for Health, Colorado's new health insurance marketplace. They have brochures and little give-away notebooks, lip balm and stocking caps with Connect for Health's logo. Sigmon says lots of people have heard of the marketplace but don't know about navigators.

“And it's because all the advertising that's going on on TV is advertising for Connect for Health website, it's not advertising for us,” she says. “Every person that I've had come in is saying I heard about it from my mother, my brother, my friend, whatever, and there's been a couple that come in with a newspaper.”

Connect for Health is starting to bring navigators out of their offices as part of a year-end marketing tour that's setting up tables at 20 different supermarkets and pharmacies across the state.

Just What She Needed

Corryn Young was on a break from work at the supermarket – and made the kind of connection that the government and insurers hope for. She saw the Connect for Health table with just what she needed.

“I was just getting Starbucks, but there were obviously a lot of people there interested, and I just kinda stopped and started reading, it was a perfect place to get my questions answered,” she says. “If I wanted to get signed up today, they would have walked me through it and got me signed up. I just have to go back to work.”

Young made an appointment to follow up with a navigator. And Sigmon, the navigator booked several appointments for people who were glad to learn she's there.

“They are very confused by the Affordable Care Act. There's so many myths out there. And especially Obamacare, they seem to think they're being persecuted to making them have insurance and all this, so there's a lot of confusion.”

Whether or not states are taking the federal money, private groups are investing in outreach and enrollment, too. For example, the Colorado Progressive Coalition is sending volunteers to Denver neighborhoods, knocking on every door and offering people help signing up for Obamacare coverage.

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR and KHN, with the support from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communications organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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