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Training Counselors to Explain Intricacies of Insurance Marketplace

So many groups volunteer as counselors that feds must work through backlog of applications

Niyonu Boateng
Niyonu Boateng, navigator program director for the Urban League of Hudson County.

Accessing the federal government’s health insurance exchange is only one of the challenges faced by those who want to buy insurance through the marketplace. The second issue is finding someone to help them understand their options.

That’s why healthcare advocates are concerned about a backlog in training “certified application counselors” -- individuals who can walk people through the website, explaining what’s available and answering questions.

Federal officials say the counselor training should take five hours, in addition to a test that applicants must pass before they can start helping residents buy insurance through the marketplace.

A crush of interest in the training program has played out over the past several weeks, ahead of the similar crush that has left the marketplace website -- -- largely inaccessible over the past two days.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Regional Director Dr. Jaime Torres said federal officials have been working through the backlog.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the amazing response of the organizations that want to say, ‘Here, we’re here to help, this is part of our mission,’ ” Torres said. “I think this has been overwhelming, so we’ve been going through all of the applications.”

Torres said it’s important that federal officials are confident that every organization that applies to train counselors will be capable of following through, including keeping residents’ information confidential.

“It’s a responsibility that we take seriously,” Torres said.

A federal spokeswoman said she couldn’t provide information on how many organizations have applied to have certified application counselors, since the officials with this information were furloughed or assigned to other duties due to the partial shutdown of the federal government this week.

Katherine Grant-Davis, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Primary Care Association, was among those who had expressed concern that some organizations interested in helping residents apply for insurance hadn’t heard back from federal officials by mid-September.

Grant-Davis said that progress has occurred since then, with 17 of the 20 federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) receiving responses to their inquiries.

The health centers hope to have 80 to 100 employees complete the training, she said. Through Tuesday morning, 65 FQHC workers had become certified counselors.

In addition to the many groups that intend to have certified application counselors on staff, there are also five organizations that feature "navigators." While navigators and counselors will do similar work, the navigator organizations received $2.02 million in federal funding to do public outreach.

Niyonu Boateng, navigator program director for the Urban League of Hudson County, said the organization’s six navigators are still being trained.

“I think everyone’s trying to be very thorough,” Boateng said, adding that it seems to be taking the workers somewhat more than the estimated time to complete the training.

Until the navigators are ready – and the federal site is accessible – the organization has been scheduling follow-up appointments with interested residents, both at Urban League offices in Hudson, Bergen, Morris, and Union counties, and at a health fair at the Hudson Mall in Jersey City.

Boateng noted that the site provides a list of groups -- organized by ZIP code -- that can help residents with their applications.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Boateng said. “People are still in the training process. I’m just happy it’s started and we’re able to help provide this free service.”

The [link:|marketplace is a key feature of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and is intended to be a one-stop shop where residents can choose to buy insurance plans and learn whether they’re eligible for federal tax credits to subsidize their insurance. The open enrollment period that began on Tuesday will continue for six months, until March 31. Residents who buy insurance before December 15 will have their coverage start on January 1.

Under the ACA, most Americans are required to purchase insurance or pay a penalty. The Rutgers Center on State Health Policy estimates that the ACA will lead to 362,000 additional residents purchasing individual health insurance -- largely through the marketplace -- and 234,000 more residents receiving Medicaid.

Donnette Williams, a certified application counselor with the Newark Community Health Centers, said the training process took more than two days last week. It mostly comprised reading material about the marketplace.

“It was a little tedious -- the reading in itself was a lot of information, but once you read it and you understand it, I think taking the test became easy,” Williams said.

Williams said there were points during the test when the federal testing site crashed and she had to start over again “because so many people at the same time were trying to log on.”

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