The University of South Florida has been awarded by far the largest grant in the state to hire "navigators" who help uninsured people sign up for health insurance coverage through the federal Marketplace, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday.
Only two other Florida organizations won navigator grants: the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, $871,275, and the Pinellas County Commission, $535,156.
This year's USF grant, of almost $5.4 million, is even larger than the $4.2 million USF received last year. The territory covered is greater this year; USF has responsibility for all 67 counties, while for 2014 others did enrollment for Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
HHS did not say why USF was chosen, but the outcome last year won widespread praise. Florida signed up more people for coverage through Healthcare.gov than any other state participating in the federal Marketplace. The number who enrolled in plans was well above 900,000, but recently the Office of Insurance Regulation reported that 866,485 Floridians actually paid for premiums.
USF's Covering Kids & Families Program, in the College of Public Health, coordinates the enrollment through 12 organizations around the state, most of them grass-roots non-profits. It's important to have local people leading the effort, said Jodi Ray, program director.
"We're able to provide 1- on-1 assistance to many thousands of consumers and get them through the process, so I think the strategies we have and the fact that we have a very strong infrastructure in terms of a network in place has been effective," Ray said.
Florida navigators succeeded last year despite opposition from state officials. For example, the State Department of Health ordered county health units not to allow navigators on their property, and members of the Florida Cabinet raised fears that navigators would steal personal health information.
The Marketplace is aimed at individuals and families who must buy their own coverage, not those who get their coverage through an employer or a government program. While those buying health coverage don't have to go through the Marketplace -- they can use an agent or company -- it is the only way to qualify for tax credits that bring down the cost of premiums. The government reported in March that 90 percent of Floridians who signed up for plans received subsidies that averaged $3,000.
Open enrollment for 2015 in plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act begins Nov. 15 and lasts through Feb. 15. Most Americans are required to have coverage that complies with the law or pay a penalty at income-tax time. The penalty for remaining uninsured this year was just $95 or 1 percent of income, but each year it rises; for 2015, it will be $325 per adult or 2 percent of income.
Among the exemptions are those whose income is below the federal poverty level in states that declined to expand Medicaid to cover low-income families as called for under the ACA. Florida is one that refused, passing up federal funds. If legislators don't change their mind, the state will give up an estimated $51 billion over a decade.
HHS said it was awarding $60 million in navigator grants to 90 organizations in states that use the federal Marketplace or participate in federal-state partnerships.