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Despite glitches, Affordable Care Act helpers staying busy

Despite glitches, Affordable Care Act helpers staying busy

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Even though glitches have prevented them from actually signing many people up for health insurance, dozens of people around the Billings region hired to educate people about the Affordable Care Act have stayed busy since its Tuesday rollout.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people and told them all about it, trying to explain more about what it is,” said Elizabeth Castro, area service coordinator with the Montana Migrant Council. “We’re making appointments and teaching people, talking with them, and sending them off from there.”

Castro, based in Billings, is one of seven people with the council trained as a certified application counselor, a position designed to help people understand and use the new healthcare marketplace.

Across the region, different organizations have hired new or trained existing staff to help people out when it comes to the ACA, commonly called Obamacare.

When the act went into effect on Tuesday, users and officials quickly learned that the online insurance marketplace rolled out with glitches, mainly that the rush of users overloaded computers and clogged up phone lines, preventing many from actually being able to sign up.

In Montana, several organizations received federal money to train or hire ACA helpers, and many of them have offices in Billings.

RiverStone Health and the migrant council received more than $260,000 to hire or train people to become certified application counselors, to help uninsured Montanans buy subsidized health coverage.

That meant RiverStone hired and trained three new people for the positions while the migrant council trained about a half-dozen of its employees as counselors.

“Their responsibilities are to provide outreach, going out and talking to people in the community about it, in addition to letting people know about the health insurance marketplace and helping people understand it,” said Barbara Schneeman, RiverStone spokeswoman.

Planned Parenthood of Montana, the Montana Primary Care Association and the Montana Health Network received a total of $728,000 to train and hire people, called navigators, to help.

At Planned Parenthood, that meant hiring four new navigators and training four more from within, all of them spread throughout its clinics in Billings, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula.

Chris Hopkins, vice president of strategy and business development for the network, said his group, a cooperative that serves small hospitals in Eastern Montana, is training 32 navigators at critical access hospitals.

Eleven have completed the required federal and state training and testing so far have stayed busy.

“I won’t say that people are lining up for it yet, but there are a lot of them who are in the initial investigation stages,” he said. “It’s a lot of questions.”

Even with the federal shutdown, the helpers worked with people curious about the exchange and who, in some cases, have never had insurance before.

“We were really excited about finally being able to get in there and check things out but, unfortunately, everyone across the United States was just as excited,” said Jade Jagers, one of RiverStone’s counselors.

All of the counselors and navigators are available to any member of the public to help, even if they aren’t able to sign up online yet. While they can’t recommend one specific plan or course of action, they can help people make an informed decision on a course of action.

Lindsay Love, Planned Parenthood’s communications manager, said that, like other groups with people on hand to help, the open enrollment period has been mostly informational so far.

With Planned Parenthood employees also geared up for outreach programs across the state, she hopes that people will use the available services.

“As navigators and assisters, we really exist to do the heavy lifing and the hand-holding to walk them through the process,” Love said. “One thing that we know as we launch any big program is that there are things to work out.

“What we’ve found on the ground here in Montana is it makes the role of in-person, real live bodies in Montana even more important. They need to know that they can actually talk to a human or meet with a human face-to-face to get some answers.”

Many of those tasked with helping others navigate the health insurance marketplace encouraged others to use the problems signing up as an opportunity to get as educated and informed as possible before making a decision.

“Is it disappointing that we haven’t been able to access the enrollment forms?” Jagers asked. “It is but we need to keep things in perspective knowing that there’s a 6 month enrollment period. There’s an opportunity for people to really go out and take a look at what their options are.”

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