By David Hackett , Herald-Tribune As the head “navigator” for the Affordable Care Act in Southwest Florida, Lynne Thorp’s job is to help make the new health insurance exchanges accessible to everyone who needs coverage.
Millions of uninsured Americans can choose from a variety of health insurance plans, many subsidized with tax credits and with no denials for pre-existing conditions. Those who do not sign up risk being fined by the federal government.
But reaching the uninsured, some of whom lack Internet access and others who don’t speak English, will be a challenge.
And that’s where Thorp comes in. The Estero resident, who has a master’s degree in business and has worked in the healthcare industry, is on contract through next August to lead a team of 17 navigators whose mission is to make sure no uninsured person is left behind.
“It’s been hectic, but exciting to be part of something that can positively affect so many lives,” Thorp said.
Navigators, including those employed by the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida, are funded by a federal grant to the Florida Covering Kids and Families program, administered by the University of South Florida College of Public Health. The $4.2 million grant was the largest of the $7.8 million given to Florida organizations.
But it pales compared to navigator grants given other states, which have been more supportive of the Affordable Care Act. New York, for example, received $27 million and Colorado $17 million for outreach efforts.
That means Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have rejected setting up a state exchange and expanding the Medicaid program, has fewer resources than other states to guide its 3.8 million uninsured residents through the process. Compounding the challenge: Florida is refusing to allow federally funded navigators into state health department facilities.
Thorp refused to comment on the political debate that is still playing out in a possible government shutdown even as the exchanges roll out.
“What’s important is that all Americans have access to healthcare,” Thorp said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
Thorp said residents she encounters are excited about seeing what insurance will be available to them on the new markets and how much it will cost.
Thorp’s team of navigators — most of whom are part-time — might seem inadequate to the goal of reaching hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents across 10 counties.
But Thorp is not panicking because, she says, most uninsured residents should be able to peruse the health insurance plans and sign up on their own, online at www.healthcare.gov.
Those without online access can get help by phone.
In addition to navigators, another group of guides called Certified Application Counselors will work through community organizations. Local insurance offices, too, can assist. EnrollAmerica, a non-profit group, will also be going door to door to enroll applicants.
“The navigators are just part of a multi-pronged effort,” said Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids and Families, who is heading the outreach program.
The navigator team’s mission is both to spread the word about the exchanges and to work closely with residents who cannot negotiate the system on their own, because of health problems, a language barrier or other obstacle.
Ray, who is heading the USF effort that includes 64 Florida counties, said the goal is to educate and inform 400,000 uninsured residents and to sign up 27,000. Thorp hopes to sign up 4,000 residents in Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties.
“I think the vast majority of Floridians are going to welcome the ability to now have options,” Ray said. “There is nothing to fear about seeing what your options are.”
Information is available at healthcare.gov.
Call (866) 547-2793 to set up assistance from a local navigator or Certified Application Counselor.