LINCOLN — Less than 20 days remain until Nebraskans and Iowans can start signing up for new health coverage options under Obamacare.
But key guides for the enrollment process have yet to be hired and trained.
To reach a Community Action of Nebraska navigator, call 402-471-3714 or your local community action agency. Find your local office at canhelp.org/map
To reach a Ponca Tribe navigator, call Jan Henderson at 402-738-3158.
To reach a Planned Parenthood navigator, call 800-318-2596.
To reach a Visiting Nurse Services navigator, call 515-558-9946. The number will be active Oct. 1.
For application counselors, contact the community health center in your area.
Information or enrollment (starts Oct. 1)
800-318-2596, available 24/7, in multiple languages
800-706-7893, for small employers
None of the five nonprofit groups tapped by the federal government to offer that guidance in the two states was ready to go as of Wednesday.
However, leaders of the groups expressed optimism about their ability to get what are called “navigator” services up and running by Oct. 1.
“That's what we committed to do, and we're moving along, and we're confident we're going to reach it,” said Roger Furrer, executive director of Community Action of Nebraska, a network of nine community action programs covering all 93 counties. “It's a really frenetic time.”
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, navigators are intended to work with people one-on-one or in groups to educate them about the new law. Their main targets will be people with no insurance.
Navigators will reach people at community events and at local gathering places, such as libraries and free clinics. They also will be available by appointment or during special enrollment hours at their sponsoring organizations.
The federal government provided navigator grants to 105 nonprofits and related organizations nationwide. The grants went to a wide range of groups, among which were health care providers, neighborhood organizations, universities and a commercial fishermen's insurance program.
In Nebraska, Community Action and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska received grants.
In Iowa, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, based in Des Moines, has a grant to provide services for the western part of the state. The central and southern counties of Iowa will be served by Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa, and Genesis Health System will serve the Quad Cities area.
Shelby Cloke, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, said the agency is working to get its five navigators hired and out in the community as soon as possible.
“The reality is, things like this take time,” she said, adding that the agency hopes to have its first navigator hired this week.
Navigators will help consumers sort through their new coverage choices and guide them through the application process.
Those options may include private insurance sold through the marketplace, or exchange, with or without a federal subsidy, and Medicaid.
Some Nebraskans, however, may have limited options because they cannot afford private insurance and the state did not expand its Medicaid program as the new federal law allowed.
Iowa is offering expanded Medicaid coverage.
The navigator positions were modeled after the consumer assistance counselors who have helped senior citizens for years to understand Medicare supplement insurance, Medicare Part D and long-term care insurance.
But the $67 million in federal navigator grants were not announced until mid-August.
That left groups across the country, including those in Nebraska and Iowa, facing a time crunch.
Enrollment for the new marketplace policies begins Oct. 1, with coverage to start Jan. 1.
The open enrollment period lasts through March 31, which should give agencies the chance to work out problems.
Furrer said community action programs are used to responding to big jobs in short order.
He commented between interviewing applicants for some of the 10 new navigator positions.
Once hired, the new employees will go through 20 hours of online navigator training. The training, provided by the federal government, leads to certification.
Furrer said 52 existing community action employees already have started on the navigator training.
Navigators in Nebraska also will have to register with the State Department of Insurance, which includes paying a $25 fee.
In Iowa, navigators will have to take an additional two hours of training and become state licensed, said Denise Hotopp, an administrator with Visiting Nurse Services.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska appears to have the first certified navigator in the two states, an existing employee. Another dozen or so employees are going through the training.
The tribe has a grant to offer navigator services to Native Americans in several eastern Nebraska counties, the Council Bluffs area and one county in South Dakota, said Tina Villalpando, the tribe's contract health specialist.
The federal government's choice of Planned Parenthood to offer navigator services in three states, including Iowa, has drawn fire from some abortion opponents.
Cloke responded that the organization has been a leading health care provider in Iowa for more than 75 years. She said Planned Parenthood will be working with a wide variety of community and health care groups to reach the people most in need.
Navigators are not the only option available for people seeking assistance with the enrollment process.
Community health centers in both states, including the 14 in Iowa and six in Nebraska, have received grants to hire application counselors.
The application counselors will focus on helping uninsured health center patients get enrolled in the new coverage options but also can work with people in their communities.
Traditional insurance agents and brokers offer another resource for people.