Just one month before the state's health insurance exchange launches enrollment, Kern County groups are hustling to be ready to help thousands of people get coverage.
More than 140,000 Kern County residents do not have health insurance, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research's 2011-2012 California Health Interview Survey.
When the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, it was estimated about 96,000 Kern residents could gain insurance under the law, said Jan Hefner, director of community wellness programs for Mercy and Memorial Hospitals.
"Certified enrollment counselors" will be at the forefront of the push to get those people coverage, whether by Medi-Cal or private plans offered through Covered California, the state-run health insurance marketplace.
The state has not started to train those people, though local leaders said they aren't letting that slow their preparations.
"We're pushing hard to be ready for the October 1 enrollment and we're coming at it from a lot of different directions," said Larry Hicks, information officer for Covered California, adding that people will also be able to enroll in the exchange by phone, online and by mail. Open enrollment will continue through the end of March.
Covered California staff predict they'll have roughly 8,900 certified enrollment counselors ready to help people come Oct. 1, Hicks wrote. The goal is to have 16,000 trained and ready by the end of the year, he said.
Working out of local organizations, enrollment counselors will help people determine what coverage they qualify for and what their insurance options are on the exchange if their income is too high for Medi-Cal. Many Californians will qualify for federal subsidies to help them buy insurance via the exchange.
Enrollment counselors won't be allowed to suggest which plan a person should pick. The groups they work for will receive $58 for every successful application and $25 per renewal.
The counselors will have to work out of a "certified enrollment entity." To earn that designation, local organizations, such as nonprofits that outreach to the homeless or provide medical care, have to submit a detailed application to the state.
On Tuesday, leaders of community groups interested in becoming enrollment entities gathered at Mercy Hospital Downtown to strategize. Staff from the Children's Health Initiative of Kern County encouraged community-based groups to complete their forms quickly to show that Kern County is eager to get trainings started here.
"Open enrollment starts October 1, but there's a possibility that we wouldn't be trained until afterward," Edgar Aguilar, program manager for the local Children's Health Initiative, told the group.
Charles Wilson, coordinator of family and community resources for the Greenfield Union School District, said Friday that Kern's groups will make "a bigger splash in the pool" if they are all ready together.
"We're doing all we can together to make it happen. Again, like a lot of things that happen with government, we're dependent on the moves that (the state makes)," he said.
Like many other programs, the Greenfield Family Resource Center already has 10 employees that help families get connected with insurance, so the process is familiar.
"We're going to have to adapt and continuing doing what we've done over the past years," Wilson said. "It's basically the same thing, it's just a different system."
Clinica Sierra Vista, a health care nonprofit that covers Kern, Fresno and Inyo counties, submitted its application to become an enrollment entity last week.
Bill Phelps, Clinica's chief of programs, said the organization will hire 18 new staffers to become enrollment counselors, on top of 28 current employees who will also be training to do that work.
"We're excited, anxiously excited, about this," Phelps said. "Next month is going to be a real busy month just getting all geared up."
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, said there is definitely rush to get ready for the beginning of October but "the puzzle pieces are coming together."
"I think that (community) groups and, frankly, Covered California does feel the urgency of getting those trainings up and running as soon as possible," Wright said. "At the same time...the open enrollment period is not just the month of October."