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Navigators, private brokers tackle new insurance exchange

Most people have heard of “navigators” for the new health insurance exchanges. They're the trained, impartial guides funded by the federal government to help people make more informed choices as they shop for policies. And then there are private insurance brokers...there's been less talk about it, but they, too, can help consumers sign up for plans.

On the exchanges' first days, both kinds of guides were busy on the front lines of this major policy shift.

At the Foy family insurance agency in downtown Watertown, Joe Foy opens a letter. It's from an employee in a small business he's been working with. But instead of information like the worker's income, number of dependents, and so on, inside the envelope is a simple, handwritten note. “'I do not support Obamacare whatsoever,'” Foy reads aloud. “Signed, 'A Defender of Freedom.'”

Foy tapes the note up on a cabinet. “The funny thing,” Foy says,“is that the plan we were doing this for is called the Freedom Plan, so this person saying, 'A Defender of Freedom,' is kind of ironic.”

Everyone in the office gets a chuckle out of the note. “Every employer that we deal with has a political opinion toward this,” Foy explains. “And they don't know a whole lot. They just say what they've heard. And it gets a little frustrating, because it's the law, and it's passed, and we'd just kind of like people to actually be informed.”

The agency sees a business opportunity in the Affordable Care Act. Foy sits at a conference table in front of a big computer screen. Here he and a client can look through the exchange website together. It's part of the agency's investment in making it in the new world of the individual health insurance mandate and the state exchange.

On the exchange's second day, things are moving pretty slow. Joy clicks and types away at his keyboard and looks up at his screen. No luck. “This is about my fourth or fifth attempt trying to get on the New York State of Health website, but unfortunately, it's very slow, probably because there are quite a few people trying to get on. So, curiosity killed the website.”

That was last week. By Monday, a glitch was still keeping Foy off the site. But he said the customer service hotline was really helpful. He was told it would probably be a couple of weeks before he's able to gain access.

Foy points out there's no reason for people to wait in front of a frozen computer screen. Shoppers have until December 15 to sign up for the earliest coverage, which begins January first.

But Donna Hynes understands the urgency many feel as the exchange opens for business. She's the insurance coordinator for the North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council, and a trained “navigator.”

Hynes has been working with people for years to help them access existing state insurance programs. But even with those programs, many fall through the cracks. “For years, we have witnessed firsthand people going without medical care because they couldn't afford the medical care, they couldn't afford the insurance premiums,” she says.

Many of those people are parents coming into enroll their kids in the state children's health insurance program – but they themselves lack coverage. Hynes says the council has been adding their names to a contact list for when the exchange is up and running. That list is more than 300 names long.

“They're very anxious – they have medical needs, they're very anxious to find out what's going to happen to them on January first, coverage-wise,” Hynes says.

Even though brokers can see navigators as federally-funded competition, Foy says the individual mandate for insurance opens a whole new market for his family's business. And, in its own leap of faith in the new system, the Foy agency is planning to drop its group health insurance plan. Instead, the company will help employees pay for individual coverage through the exchange.

North Country Public Radio/North Country Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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