California's Health Insurance Exchange Builds Critical Outreach Network

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Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange, announced the recipients of $37 million in education and outreach grants on Tuesday. It's a critical step in the drive toward the full implementation of the federal health law on Jan. 1. "This program now belongs to California ... and to Californians, and we have to make it work," said Dr. Robert Ross, a Covered California board member.

The grants were awarded to 48 lead organizations, which will be supported by 226 community partner groups. They will focus on education and outreach to the 5.3 million Californians the exchange seeks to enroll, with an estimated 2.6 million of those people eligible for subsidies to help them afford insurance. Five of the recipients will target their outreach to small businesses.

Californians will be able to shop for insurance on the new marketplace starting Oct. 1, with coverage going into effect on Jan. 1. Most people must have insurance or pay a penalty. In 2014 the penalty is $95 per person or 1 percent of income (whichever is greater), and the penalty rises to $695 or 2.5 percent of income (again, whichever is greater) by 2016. 

Many of the 5.3 million outreach workers will try to reach are currently uninsured or often unfamiliar with insurance as a product. Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, acknowledged the significant outreach work in front of them. "What it's going to take on Jan. 1, 2014, is partnership," he said in a press conference. "It's a huge task, but it's a task that's doable."

The grant recipients are charged with outreach and education only, not enrolling people into a plan. Actual enrollment will come later. Much of "what we're doing now is putting fertilizer out there," Lee said. "We're starting to till the soil to get people educated, so when it comes to open enrollment we can harvest huge enrollment."


Community Health Councils, an umbrella advocacy group in Los Angeles, received a $1 million grant. Sonya Vasquez, CHC's policy director, also acknowledged the "short window of time" that groups have to do outreach, but said her organization is ready to "meet people where they work, play, pray, live and access services. Our goal is to have one-on-one communication" and ensure people know how to enroll.

Enrollment will come later this summer by "assisters," who will be trained and certified by Covered California to help individuals with the actual sign-up process.

More than 200 organizations that applied for the grants. In a release, Covered California said organizations not chosen can apply to become "Assister Enrollment Entities."

Lee joked that Californians can expect airwaves to be buzzing with ads this summer as Covered California starts an advertising campaign to inform people about the new insurance marketplace.

Ross, the board member, praised Covered California for being nimble, but then echoed President Obama's recent remarks to expect "glitches" as full implementation takes place. "We know it's not going to be perfect on Jan. 1," Ross said. "We will have bumps; we will have bruises, but we will continue to move forward."