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Government hires 'navigators' to help consumers enroll in health exchanges

Social service providers in Camden, New Jersey attend Affordable Care Act training.

In just about two weeks, millions of uninsured Americans will start shopping online to get coverage…in theory.

In reality millions of people remain confused over what Obamacare does or if it’s even still a law.

To chart these murky health insurance waters, the federal government is spending millions dollars to hire navigators who can help consumers enroll. The front lines of the Affordable Care Act right now are cramped church pews, hospital conference rooms, featuring weak coffee and plenty of power point presentations.

“Today, what we are going to do is really equip you with the knowledge you need on the Affordable Care Act,” says Maura Collinsgru with New Jersey Citizen ActionCollinsgru is running an overview session, helping social service providers, and non-profits learn the ABC’s of the ACA.

“We also know who consumers are listening to…it’s moms.”

Most of the people at this meeting won’t become official navigators who are trained to help consumers apply for coverage. Groups are here because they feel strongly about promoting the law and are willing to spend their own resources to do it. And in a state like New Jersey volunteers are going to be essential to getting the ACA off the ground. Which is why Health and Human Services Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius phoned in with moral support.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens through connecting people with information on the ground and you’ll be leading the way,” she said.

When Sebelius tells this crowd ‘you’ll be leading the way,’ she’s not joking. Carol Wolff with the Camden Area Health Education Center says the state of New Jersey is sitting on the sidelines.

“Without the marketing, without the TV, without the kinds of things the state could put in place, I think that there is only so much the nonprofit groundswell will be able to do,” she says.

The government has given the 34 states with federally run exchanges just $67 million dollars to fund a huge education effort. Jennifer Tolbert with the Kaiser Family Foundation says the states running their own exchanges are spending more than $100 million. 

“That level of spending is likely going to matter at the end of the day in terms of the number of people who are actually able to enroll in coverage,” she says.

In New Jersey more than 10 percent of the population is uninsured -- 900,000 people will be eligible to purchase health insurance through the exchanges.

Tolbert says the state’s $2 million in navigator money amounts to $1.52 for each one.

It’s the lowest rate in the nation.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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