Navigators Scarce as Market Opens

Oct 1, 2013

Florida's online Marketplace for health insurance opened Tuesday for browsing at HealthCare.gov, with only 34 licensed "navigators" ready to offer advice to the millions who may need it.

Navigator Lynne Thorp Covers Southwest FL

That's only 1 navigator for every 100,000 uninsured people in the state who have to obtain coverage for 2014 to comply with the Affordable Care Act. 

(Meanwhile, the website itself suffered paralysis more than once Tuesday morning, as Kaiser Health News reported. )

Licenses for the federally-funded enrollment specialists, who have to pass a federal test and state background check, are being processed by the Florida Division of Financial Services. According to a DFS list released Monday afternoon, dozens are pending, and eventually about 150 navigators are expected to become licensed in the state.

Even then, there would only be one navigator for every 20,000 customers -- not counting those who now have insurance but don't like what they have and want to switch.

That makes life hectic for navigators like Lynne Thorp of Estero, who was profiled in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. She leads a team of 17 navigators, most part-time, to cover all of Southwest Florida. Their pay comes from a federal grant to the University of South Florida's Covering Kids & Families program. 

The opening of the Marketplace is a prelude to the Jan. 1 rollout of the real meat of the Affordable Care Act -- not letting insurers turn sick people away, and requiring the healthy to sign up for a plan before they get sick.

In Florida and 35 other states that declined to  run their own Marketplace or exchange, the federal  government had to build it. Private insurers bid to place their plans on the Marketplace, and federal funds have been set aside to subsidize the premiums of those with low and moderate incomes.

As many as one in four Floridians under age 65 will be shopping for a plan because they have inadequate coverage or none at all.

To make up for the shortage of Navigators, health-care organizations and social service agencies throughout the state have been sending staff members through training to become  "certified application counselors" capable of helping confused consumers. Insurers and agents will also be signing up prospects.

Luckily, there is plenty of time to compare plans. In order to have coverage begin Jan. 1, the enrollment must be completed by early December and the first premium paid by Dec. 15. But for those who have trouble making a decision, the sign-up season lasts through the end of March.

The shopping site is not for those who already have decent coverage through their employer, Medicare, Medicaid, the military or some other source. Medicare beneficiaries' open-enrollment season is Oct. 15 through Dec. 7 at medicare.gov. Those who have a plan through their employer will go through their own open-enrollment procedures at the usual time.

Here are some ways that shoppers can find help with enrollment:

  •  On the healthcare.gov site, you can search for information on a topic. You can also have a "chat" (by typing your question in a box on the screen) with a call-center employee. And there is a toll-free phone line, 1-800-318-2596.
  • This site lists the local groups in each area that can help with enrollment. For example, typing in the zip code for the University of South Florida in Tampa brings up 22 groups from St. Petersburg to Orlando.
  • Members of the Florida Association of Community Health Centers have trained Navigators,  application counselors and outreach workers ready to help the uninsured. To find the nearest center, type in your county or zip code at this site.
  • Several organizations affiliated with the University of South Florida's Covering Kids & Families program have navigators ready to deploy. They include:
    --USF Navigators Wendy Hathaway, 813-974-9088,  Xonjenese Jacobs, 813-974-3809, and Michelle Ray, 813-974-7735.
    --The Family Healthcare Foundation, 813-995-1066, Maria Velasco-Fontaine, 813-995-1066.
  • The Epilepsy Foundation of Florida can be reached at this toll-free number: 877-553-7453. The organization plans to have the following locations staffed and open to Floridians:
    --Miami-Dade:
    Adler Conference Room
    1200 NW 78 Avenue, Suite 109, Miami, FL 33126
    1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
    --Broward:
    Ft. Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce
    512 NE 3rd Avenue, 2nd Floor, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301
    9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
    --African American Research Library & Cultural Center
    2650 NW 6 Street, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33311
    2 p.m. – 6 p.m.
    --West Palm Beach:
    Epilepsy Foundation of Florida
    3222 Commerce Place, West Palm Beach, FL
    9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
    --Gainesville
    Epilepsy Foundation of Florida
    1000 NW 8 Avenue, Suite A, Gainesville, FL 32601
    1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
    --Jacksonville:
    Epilepsy Foundation of Florida
    5209 San Jose Blvd., Suite 101, Jacksonville, FL 32207
    1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
    --Also, Bob Hayes Sports Complex Legends Center
    5130 Soutel Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32208, 6 p.m.
    --Pensacola:
    Epilepsy Foundation of Florida Resource Center
    916 E. Fairfield Drive, Pensacola, FL 32501
    9 a.m. – 1 p.m.