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Boston Public Health Commission gets $300K grant to aid health insurance enrollment

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Boston Public Health Commission gets $300K grant to aid health insurance enrollment
The Boston Public Health Commission and the Mayor’s Health Line are reaching out to Boston’s uninsured. The Mayor’s Health Line has certified “navigators” trained to help people enroll in new health-care insurance plans that are part of the Affordable Care Act. (Left to right) Javier Gutierrez (navigator), Bradley Moore (project manager), Beatrice Martin (navigator), Sujay Bernardino (administrative assistant). (Yawu Miller photo) (Photo: Yawu Miller)

The Boston Public Health Commission hit the ground running last week with efforts to help the uninsured in the city enroll in the many health-care options that are part of the newly implemented Affordable Care Act.

BPHC was given $300,000 from the Massachusetts Health Connector, which was used to add staff members and train others to make sure people choose the best health-coverage plan.

The Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, is federal legislation that was signed into law in March 2010 to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance and lower the number of uninsured. It includes mandates that require individuals to enroll in their choice of health plans and also requires health insurance companies to provide coverage with new minimum standards.

The open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act began on Oct. 1 and will last until March 31, 2014.

According to BPHC officials, it is estimated that up to 97 percent of adults — and a slightly higher percentage of children — in Boston are currently insured. Boston still has the largest total number of uninsured residents compared to other cities and towns in the state.

However, BPHC officials explain that this high number is partly a result of the fact that Boston is the biggest city in the state, with a population that includes many immigrants, is younger and more racially diverse and has an average lower income — all factors that lead to lower rates of health-insurance coverage.

Nationally, the Affordable Care Act is expected to help 32 million Americans gain access to health care.

“Massachusetts led the way in providing access to health insurance, and in Boston we know how important it is for our most vulnerable residents to have coverage. The federal mandate is an opportunity to build on the success we’ve had locally, but we need to work together to spread the word about changes so that people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission in a statement. “If you’re seeking insurance coverage or have questions about the new options we want to make sure there’s no wrong door.”

BPHC will be relying heavily on its Mayor’s Health Line to lead the outreach efforts to get Boston’s uninsured the coverage they need.

“Like with every new law and legislation [with the Affordable Care Act] there is so much literature and rules and policy it is difficult for the uninsured to understand what their options are,” said Bradley Moore, project manager at the Mayor’s Health Line. “They need people who can go into the community and explain what is going to change for them.”

The Mayor’s Health Line and BPHC have staff they call “navigators” to help constituents. According to Moore, navigators are certified BPHC employees who are trained to interact with people in person or over the phone and walk them through their health-insurance options.

Navigators can answer questions and explain coverage options, provide personalized information about eligibility, assist with application and enrollment in the right plan, and help people find health-care providers. Navigators can be reached by phone or email. The services provided are free and confidential and are being offered in many languages, including English, Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole and Cape Verdean Creole.

In addition, BPHC and the navigators will actively reach out to Boston individuals, families and local businesses to make them aware of how the Affordable Care Act changes impact them.

As Moore points out, the new law also dictates that some people who already have state-sponsored health insurance as part of Massachusetts’ own health reform efforts in 2006 must now reapply for plans that are part of the federal mandate. The state-sponsored insurance plans affected include Commonwealth Care, Health Safety Net and Mass Health.

BPHC also plans to reach out to people in the community and will conduct outreach through the Boston Public Library, Boston Public Schools, community groups, faith-based organizations and other partners.

The Mayor’s Health Line is also reaching out directly to small businesses to help them understand what — if any — insurance options they can offer to employees.

The Mayor’s Health Line has seven full-time navigators — BPHC was able to increase this number from three to seven thanks to the $300,000 in grant money.

For Gerry Thomas, director of the community initiatives bureau at BPHC, the additional employees are a massive boost in the commission’s efforts to reach the uninsured.

“Most of the money is for staff and it basically allowed us to double in size,” she said. “It also allowed us to add someone dedicated to small business.”

According to Thomas, the ultimate goal is to reach every Boston resident with the awareness campaign to make sure they understand their insurance options, though she admits it is likely many will still not enroll.

“I think we would like to be enrolling several thousand people at the very least,” Thomas said. “We would want to directly get a quarter or half of the city.”

Since the Mayor’s Health Line started its outreach efforts last week, navigators have already contacted 2,500 people, according to Thomas.

“We are interested in everybody, but we are particularly interested in immigrants, people with low income and people who speak a primary language other than English,” said Thomas.

“The statistics show that the highest rate of uninsured is a young, Latino male who is working so we are trying to reach out [to that population].”

With just six months until the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to close, Thomas emphasized that BPHC does not have much time to get the word out and help the uninsured. So efforts are being ramped up.

“Getting people successfully enrolled is what we all need to focus on,” she said. “People are working on the state and the city level night and day.”

BPHC received the largest grant to fund its navigator grant program, but was one of 10 organizations selected statewide to help implement outreach and enrollment efforts. Fifteen local community health centers also received funding to provide individual and family insurance navigation. The other Boston centers that received money include Boston Health Care for the Homeless, the Codman Square Health Center, Dimock Community Health Center and Dorchester House.

Navigators from the Mayor’s Health Line can answer questions and explain coverage options, provide personalized information about eligibility, assist with application and enrollment in the right plan, and help people find health-care providers. Representatives are available by phone at 617-534-5050 or 1-800-847-0710 or by email at mayorshealthline@bphc.org.