TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - With less than 50 days until Floridians are able to go online and shop for private health insurance under a new federal law, U.S. Health and Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Thursday the state will receive nearly $8 million in federal funds so organizations can hire staff to walk people through the new health care system.
Eight organizations throughout the state will receive the money to hire so-called "navigators", an army of counselors to explain different insurance plans offered through the exchange. A $4.2 million grant awarded to a program at the University of South Florida was the largest in the state.
"We're very excited that USF is going to be a statewide resource," said Jodi Ray, the project director of the Florida Covering Kids and Families program at USF, which will oversee the grant. "The plan is to work with organizations around the state."
Ray and Sebelius appeared at a news conference Thursday to announce the federal grants.
USF's program will assist people in nearly every part of the state except for Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Other programs awarded grant money will help people in those areas.
The additional funds are especially important in Florida where the Republican-controlled legislature has been resistant to the Affordable Care Act and opted to let federal officials run its state exchange, an online site where individuals and small businesses can shop for health insurance. The state isn't spending any additional money on outreach efforts to get the message out to roughly 3.5 million uninsured Floridians.
Educating Americans about the law will be paramount for the federal government and insurers as 78 percent of uninsured adults don't know about opportunities that will be available to them in 2014, according to Enroll America, a nonprofit group sponsoring a national marketing campaign.
For many people, enrolling will be an easy process they can do online or on the phone, Sebelius said at event in Tampa.
"We also know a lot of people prefer in-person help instead of online or on the phone....these navigators will help answer questions about coverage options and help them make an informed decision about what information is best for them," Sebelius said.
She also announced that more than 30 other states that are letting the federal government run their online insurance marketplaces will receive $67 million in grants to hire navigators.
But the organizations receiving the grants will have a quick-turnaround to start hiring the navigators and training them on the ins and outs of the complex law.
Navigators will be required to complete 20 to 30 hours of training to be certified, will take additional training throughout the year, and must pass an exam. Federal health officials said training will begin later this month and they anticipate some navigators will be able to start their outreach efforts before the Oct. 1 enrollment deadline to help speed up the process. However, residents can't actually enroll in plans until October.
Ray, of USF, said that her program will use databases and lists of people who are uninsured and have already sought services for their children through various university health care offerings.
"We have lots of families we have been working with who are uninsured," she said, adding that for others who are unknown to social service programs, "you really have to go where people are."
Enroll America is also focusing tens of millions of dollars and 3,000 volunteers in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and seven other states with a strong GOP presence where officials have been resistant to the Affordable Care Act. And even though enrollment begins Oct. 1, that doesn't mean everyone has to sign up that day. Coverage begins in January and the enrollment period closes in March 31.
The new marketplaces will have the feel of an online travel site where individuals, families and small businesses can compare different private insurance plans. Consumers will be able to choose from bronze, silver, gold, platinum and catastrophic plans that offer a range of premiums, deductibles and co-pays depending on variables such as how many doctors you want included in your network. Insurers are offering 308 plans through the exchange in Florida, according to state insurance officials.
Individuals will have to have health insurance from their employer or purchase it, and will pay a roughly $100 penalty next year if they don't. Anyone making below the poverty line won't be eligible for subsidies through the online marketplace. Federal health officials anticipate roughly 1 million Floridians will fall into a gap where they can't get health insurance because the state rejected Medicaid expansion.
Sebelius said that she is "still very optimistic" that Florida lawmakers will reconsider a Medicaid expansion.
Federal health officials plan to release figures on how much plans will cost next month.