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Nonprofits ready to assist with open enrollment

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Today is the first day of open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Two Austin nonprofits are ready to help anyone needing assistance with the sometimes confusing process of getting health insurance. This year participants will have just six weeks to complete the process, and experts are urging people to get started right away.

Two of the expert organizations providing assistance are the Latino HealthCare Forum and Insure Central Texas, a program of Foundation Communities. Both are doing a considerable amount of outreach, trying to combat false information that people have gotten, overcome their procrastination and generally help them with their health care problems.

The two groups split available funding from this year’s city of Austin Public Health Department budget, with each getting $125,000. Next year, however, the contract will be rebid, according to a spokesperson for the department.

Insure Central Texas’ program is larger and better funded and reaches more individuals from its two permanent locations on the west side, one at 5900 Airport Blvd., and the other at 2600 W. Stassney Lane.

In addition to the money the program gets from the city it receives funding from Central Health, the St. David’s Foundation and Seton Healthcare Family.

But the Latino HealthCare Forum perhaps has a harder job, serving citizens on the east side of Travis County as well as in Hays, Caldwell, Bastrop and Williamson counties. Although the organization received federal funding for the past two years, when the Trump administration decided to make a drastic cut across the nation, that cut hit the Latino HealthCare Forum particularly hard.

The forum’s CEO, Jill Ramirez, told the Austin Monitor that her group got about $240,000 in federal funds per year for 2015 and 2016 to provide outreach and navigators to help people sift through the various health insurance options.

However, this year the Health and Human Services Department offered the east side organization just $13,000. That was not enough to be worth the cost of doing all the administrative work on a new contract, she explained, so they decided not to take that funding.

But the loss of federal money was a blow to the organization and she asked her employees to take a pay cut. One of those who declined to continue working for the lower wage was the person in charge of doing the organization’s reports to the city, Ramirez said. So she and Hugo Diaz, who took over filing those reports, had some difficulty understanding exactly what the city was seeking.

As a result, they reported to the city of Austin that the organization had enrolled people in 281 “unduplicated households” in Austin in a marketplace health insurance plan for the fiscal year that just ended. As Ramirez pointed out, this is only the number attributable to funding from the city of Austin. Because the forum was getting more in federal funding, this is apparently about 44 percent of the households served.

Because the health department was looking for the number of individuals, Vella Karman, manager of social services policy in the department, knew when she saw the number that there had to be a mistake. She told the Austin Monitor the department had “reached out to them in the last day or two and asked about that.”

The forum also reported having served 12,318 Austin clients through outreach, education and enrollment assistance. But again this number is probably less than half of those it actually helped. Data collected by the city also shows that in the previous year, the Latino HealthCare Forum served more than 41,000 people through outreach, education and enrollment assistance. This number included people helped through a federal grant. And Diaz said the group did 405 outreach events between October 2016 and September 2017, helping to educate 11,600 people about insurance options.

For the coming year, it will receive $50,000 from the St. David’s Foundation, but none of that money can be spent in Travis County, according to Linda Smith, the group’s chief administrative officer.

Foundation Communities’ group, Insure Central Texas, reported for Fiscal Year 2016-17 that it had served a total of 1,040 “unduplicated clients” who enrolled or were likely to enroll with city funding. However, Elizabeth Colvin, director of Insure Central Texas, pointed out that city funding represented just 21.47 percent of the organization’s 2016-17 budget. An additional 1,868 people received some kind of health insurance services thanks to city funding, according to data from the city. About 8,700 people in all received information on insurance from the group last year.

Central Health is Insure Central Texas’ largest source of funding, providing about 50 percent of the money it uses to enroll people in health insurance and assist them with understanding their bills and sorting through other health issues.

Both Colvin and Ramirez pointed out that their organizations offer education and options for coverage even for people who may not be immediately eligible for marketplace plans. The numbers in their reports do not include individuals who enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or in Medicaid.

It is also important to note that beyond the six-week enrollment period, these groups still have work to do, helping people who are eligible to enroll outside of that initial time because of extenuating circumstances, as well as enrolling people in the other health insurance programs, such as Medicaid, and assisting them in deciphering their bills.

Insure Central Texas will be open seven days a week until open enrollment ends on Dec. 15, and Colvin said there is no need to make an appointment.

Latino HealthCare Forum is offering enrollment assistance in Austin at its headquarters at 6601 Felix Ave. In addition they will be offering assistance from health care navigators at several East Austin schools, including Walnut Creek Elementary School, Dobie Middle School, and Perez Elementary School. Anyone wishing to schedule an appointment at one of the sites can do so by calling 211.

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