|McALLEN, October 1 - Six part-time navigators are wanted to help assist, inform and educate Rio Grande Valley residents about the Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace that opened for business today.
The six workers will be hired for at least six months by the Valley Association of Independent Living.
“We are excited to be participating in this important program. We want to get as many people enrolled as possible,” said VAIL Executive Director Pat Zenor. “So, if you know of anyone who wants to be a marketplace navigator, call VAIL. We are looking for help.”
VAIL has been working in the healthcare arena in the Valley for 25 years. On Tuesday, it learned its application to be an official Affordable Care Act navigator had been accepted by United Way of Tarrant County (UWTC). UWTC secured $5.9 million from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to do outreach work in Texas.
Through a Memorandum of Understanding, UWTC partnered with 16 subcontractors to form the CHIMES Consortium but four of these 16, all Councils of Government, have pulled out. The COGs are concerned that Gov. Rick Perry will force the Texas Department of Insurance to impose tough new rules on navigators. VAIL will replace one of the COGs pulling out of the Consortium, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. The LRGVDC was due to receive $288,322 from UWTC.
“We have been interested in this navigator program ever since we heard about it,” Zenor told the Guardian. “We were going to do the best we could to help with the Affordable Care Act as counselors. Then we got a call to say we ought to submit a proposal because the COG had declined to accept the contract. So, this will mean we are certified to enroll people in an insurance program. We are very happy about this.”
Zenor said VAIL will not be hiring promotoras because other navigator entities in the Valley are looking after colonias. She said VAIL’s six part-time workers will be doing general outreach.
“We will work with the promotoras and with the health clinics. We will work with everybody. When we learn of a healthcare event, we will be at the event,” Zenor said. “We already serve this area so we think it is going to be real easy to slide in and not lose any of the momentum that the COG had already established.”
The four COGs that pulled out of the CHIMES Consortium are LRGVDC, the Coastal Bend Council of Governments, the Heart of Texas Council of Governments, based in Waco, and the Nortex Regional Planning Commission, based in Wichita Falls.
John McKinney, executive director of UWTC, said although he was disappointed to lose the four COGS from the Consortium he remained confident that other community partners could be found to pick up the slack. McKinney said Coastal Bend Center for Independent Living will most likely replace the Coastal Bend COG, which was due to receive $173,612 for marketplace outreach. “We are confident we have found replacements that are keen to help the uninsured. We are not in any danger of not fulfilling our role,” McKinney said.
McKinney said his organization’s charge is to sign up as many people as possible for health insurance through the new marketplace during the six-month enrollment window that ends March 31, 2014. UWTC and its subcontractors are working in 220 of the 254 counties in Texas.
“With this money we have to hire navigators to assist, inform, and educate people as to their choices in the marketplace,” McKinney said. “Texas has over six million people who are uninsured, the highest in the nation. That is why Texas received the largest grants for navigators. In addition to our $5.9 million, there were other grants totaling $5 million. So, almost $11 million of the $67 million nationwide went to Texas. That shows you how important it is and how important the federal government thought it was to fund navigators in Texas; to find as many of the six million who are uninsured as possible.”
On Monday, McKinney testified at a stakeholder meeting in Austin about the navigator program. It was hosted by the Texas Department of Insurance, which has been charged by Gov. Rick Perry with developing new rules for navigators such as UWTC. Perry wants navigators to undertake more stringent training than the federal government requires. McKinney said new rules are unnecessary.
“The training and preparation that the navigators are exposed to in our Consortium are more than sufficient. In fact, we went one step further than the federal government. We require background checks, which the federal government does not require. The federal government does not require HIPA training and our consortium does. I tried to make it clear yesterday - we do not need any more training,” McKinney said.
HIPA stands for Health Information Protection Act. The Act is designed to improve the privacy of people's health information.
Asked how the opening of the new Affordable Care Act marketplace had gone on day one, McKinney said: “When you have a brand new roll out of anything there are going to be glitches. There have been some glitches today and there will be more glitches in the days ahead. The important message that the media needs to tell its readers and listeners and viewers is that this is not a one day enrollment or a one week enrollment. It is a six-month period enrollment and it is going to be much easier to enroll next week than it is today. Certainly, by next month it will be easier than it is today.”
McKinney also provided information on where people can find out more information. The website address to go to is Healthcare.gov. The Spanish language version is CuidadoDeSalud.gov. The call center number is 800-318-2596. Those who are hearing impaired can call 855-889-4325.
John Buckner is executive director of Coastal Bend Council of Governments. Buckner told the Guardian why his organization has pulled out of the CHIMES Consortium.
“With the climate we have right now it did not seem appropriate for us to be getting ourselves involved in something that might have created in the short term a real problem for us. You have to remember Councils of Government are creatures of the state. We were set up by the state in 1965,” Buckner said.
“The political climate for this program has gotten bad. I am not saying it is a bad program, it is a good program. But, the financial concern I have is a lot of our programs are tied to the people in Austin and they seem to have their own opinion of what this program is all about. They have a direct impact on our future.
“On top of this, we do not know what the heck is going on in Congress. So, we believe it was not worth the risk. We were interested (in the CHIMES Consortium) but I got us disinterested real quick when I found out the political climate. We are out.”
Buckner said he is hopeful another entity or entities in the Coastal Bend will work with UWTC to provide outreach for the new marketplace. “I think there are other avenues,” he said.
Judy Telge is executive director of the Coastal Bend Center for Independent Living. This group could take over the health outreach work of the Coastal Bend Council of Governments. Telge said she has submitted a proposed budget to UWTC.
“We intend to be taking on the role the COG pulled out of. We serve a very significant part of the population that is considered by average standards hard to reach. We serve people that are uninsured, on low-incomes, Medicaid eligible, that fall between the cracks, on and on. This program sits well with our skill sets, with the work we do day-to-day for people with disabilities and people that do not necessarily have disabilities,” Telge said.
Asked if the Coastal Bend Center for Independent Living has concerns about potential new rules for navigators imposed by TDI, Telge said: “We do not yet know what is going to happen. We simply want to step in where the Area Agency for Aging was going through their COG. We want to continue what they initiated.”
Asked if she had another comments, Telge said: “Sometimes politics can have unintended consequences in terms of other entities becoming involved that perhaps should have been in the first place, just because of skill sets and so forth. We will wait and see how this plays out but we very much want to help the people of this area, especially the uninsured, to be able to access health care probably for the first time ever.”