Manatee outreach workers: Obamacare off to glitchy start

skennedy@bradenton.comOctober 8, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee's guides for helping the uninsured enroll in a new federal health insurance program are frustrated because overwhelming demand on the government's national website has halted the process.

"It's just overwhelmed, a lot of people are showing interest in it," said Kimberly Durocher, 51, a long-time Bradenton resident who is among eight people hired through Manatee Rural Health Services Inc. to enroll the uninsured through the Affordable Care Act.

She has helped some to fill out portions of the application for the health insurance program, but software glitches at the government website, healthcare.gov, prevented their completion, she said.

"I'm jumping at the bit," said Durocher, hired and trained as a certified application specialist with the help of a $394,379 grant especially for the ballyhooed roll-out of the new program.

She works at the Lawton Chiles Children and Family Healthcare Center, 1515 26th Ave. E., Bradenton.

Similar problems with the federal health insurance exchanges -- an online marketplace where the uninsured are supposed to be able to buy health insurance -- were reported by insurance agents Monday.

"The exchange has not been available yet," said Gene Stracener, owner of National Health Insurance Agencies Inc., 840 Sixth Ave. W., a Bradenton insurance agency affiliated with the nonprofit health insurer Florida Blue, also known as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida.

"I don't know why it's not available, but it's not available for our clients to use," he said. "We're working with individuals right now, and making sure they know there's still time, not to panic; they do have local agents to help, and as soon as it is back available, we'll be helping them personally with that."

The U.S. government website at https://localhelp.healthcare.gov/ listed organizations in nearby counties that provide guides to help enrollees, but it did not include a single Manatee County organization Monday.

The Manatee County Health Department is not allowing the specially trained guides called navigators on its premises in accordance with orders from state health officials in Tallahassee, said Administrator Dr. Jennifer Bencie. "They make the policies. We just follow them here," said Bencie.

Asked if she was disappointed to be left out of ground-breaking start of a national health reform, Bencie replied: "I don't make those policies, they're made in Tallahassee."

Navigators are supposed to help enroll people through the online marketplace, which opened Oct. 1.

A memo from the Florida Department of Health last month decreed navigators would not be allowed to help people on the grounds of county health departments, according to a report in The Miami Herald.

The order from Deputy Health Secretary C. Meade Grigg went out to 60 local health department directors across the state, the newspaper reported.

At the time, Grigg declined to comment, but health department spokeswoman Ashley Carr said there was a need for "clarity" and "a consistent message" across the agency, the newspaper said.

"Navigators are not acting on behalf of the Department of Health and this program has raised privacy concerns due to the consumer information that will be gathered for use in a federal database," Carr wrote in a statement published by the newspaper.

U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesman Fabien Levy called the Florida directive "another blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate groups who will be working to inform Americans about their new health insurance options and help them enroll in coverage, just like Medicare counselors have been doing for years."

Some counties, such as neighboring Pinellas, allow navigators on the premises despite orders from Tallahassee, according to a report from the Tampa Bay Times.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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