By Victoria Colliver
With fewer than 50 days before consumers can start signing up for health insurance under Obamacare, the state is busy training the first wave of what will be an army of people spreading the word about the new health law.
They will be sent to circulate at neighborhood events, ethnic festivals and even door-to-door.
“What we’re trying to do is get 5.3 million uninsured and underinsured Californians insured,” said Susan Ladua, a trainer for the state agency that will sell the new coverage. She was speaking to about 50 people participating in a 20-hour course in Oakland last week to become the new marketplace’s “certified educators.”
The state is wrapping up training sessions for about 2,200 educators whose task it will be to inform people about the health care law and to collect contact information of people who are interested in signing up for health insurance under the new law. They will not be enrolling anyone in policies.
That job will be left to an estimated 20,000 “enrollment counselors” and 10,000 licensed insurance agents who will be certified to recommend and sell policies through Covered California, a virtual marketplace set up by the state. The exchange will be open for business on Oct. 1.
The state will begin training counselors and agents in September.
Most Americans will be required to have health insurance starting Jan. 1 under the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. People who aren’t covered by March 31 will face a fine. Some people will get coverage through expansion to Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor known in California as Medi-Cal.
The law is the most comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s health care system in decades and educators have to be knowledgeable enough about its details to answer a range of questions. They will have to be well versed in deadlines, benefits and prices, and be able to help people figure out whether they qualify for federal subsidies to help offset the cost of coverage.
California is one of 17 states that chose to run its own exchange rather than let the federal government carry out that task. Through Covered California, the state has picked the insurance companies that will sell policies for individuals and small businesses.
Covered California has awarded about $37 million in federal government grants to about 50 organizations — community groups, unions, and professional and health organizations — to find and train the educators, who must pass an online test at the end of the course to be certified.
Once certified, educators will be set loose to evangelize about the law, preferably to people in their neighborhoods or workplaces, or other settings where they are trusted.
“The best job of PR is word of mouth,” said Ladua, explaining to the class of educators that a recommendation from someone she knows is better than any public relations campaign.
Latinos are a key focus of the new health law because many people in that demographic work in low-wage industries that do not offer health insurance and they can’t afford to buy insurance on their own. Those who are living here illegally, however, are not eligible to buy coverage in the exchange.
“We are motivating the community to really embrace this opportunity,” said Xóchitl Castañeda, program director for UC Berkeley’s Health Initiative of the Americas, a group created to conduct research, expand access to health services and reduce health disparities in the Latino population in the United States. The organization received one of the largest federal grants, $1 million.
Castañeda said the group plans to reach out to Latinos at various venues including soccer games and consulate offices.
The California Association of Nonprofits in San Francisco received $300,000 to train 15 educators and help nonprofits understand that the exchange is an option for businesses, including nonprofits, with 50 or fewer workers. Jan Masaoka, chief executive officer of the association, said part of the educators’ job will be to correct misperceptions about the law.
“There are two messages everyone is hearing,” she said. “They’re hearing Obamacare is going to bankrupt the country. The other myth is that Obamacare is going to give everyone free health care. Neither one of those is true.”
‘Really a hot mess’
Nadia Hussain, a youth wellness coordinator with Community Health for Asian Americans in Richmond, said she volunteered to go through the training to become an educator because she supports the law and believes health care is a right.
“What I’m hearing from a lot of people is that this is really a hot mess,” said Hussain, referring to potential problems in rolling out such a huge health care expansion.
She said she wants to learn as much as possible about the new law and help spread accurate information aided by social media. “I’ve only been here a day and a half and I’ve already learned so much,” she said.
— Reach Victoria Colliver at [email protected]