WASHINGTON – Whether the federal government is shut down or not, insurance “navigators” in Arizona say they will be ready Tuesday to help consumers shop for health insurance coverage in the new federally run marketplaces under Obamacare.
Organizers said the navigators might not be fully up to speed on Tuesday, the first day the health insurance exchanges are available under the health-reform law, but that they are moving forward.
“As far as we are concerned, we are ready to go tomorrow,” said Tara McCollum Plese, senior director for external affairs with the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers (AACHC). “We’re not directly impacted by any government shutdown, so we’re going to keep going.”
The alliance is one of four organizations in Arizona that got federal grant money to fund navigator programs. The navigators are there to help Arizona residents wade through the healthcare options – there are an average of 106 across the state – that will be available to them in the marketplace.
Funding for the marketplaces – a key part of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law – and related contracts are funded through mandatory spending programs or paid from “sources not impacted by the lapse in appropriations,” said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That means they will open as planned, even if some federal agencies do not because of a congressional stalemate over the budget for fiscal 2014, which starts Tuesday.
House Republicans have passed bills to keep the government operating, but only after stripping out parts of Obamacare, provisions that the White House and Senate Democrats have repeatedly rejected.
“An important part of the Affordable Care Act takes effect tomorrow no matter what Congress decides to do today,” Obama said in a news conference Monday. “That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down.”
Arizona navigators are employees of private healthcare organizations and nonprofits, not federal employees subject to potential furloughs if Congress does not reach a compromise.
The University of Arizona’s Center for Rural Health, another grant recipient, had yet to hire either of two part-time navigators by Monday afternoon, but not because of congressional turmoil, said Howard Eng. He is director of the Pima County Asian American and Pacific Islander Navigator Program at the university.
“We’re moving forward,” Eng said. “We don’t have everything in place, but that’s because we’re starting from ground zero.”
“On Oct. 1, there will be coverage, there will be folks who will be able to assist those who need help in the application process,” Eng said.
“It may not be at 100 percent, it may be the capacity may be at 50 percent,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that somebody who really, really wants to get enrolled can’t get enrolled.”
With 60 navigators statewide, AACHC has the most in Arizona. But, while they’ll be ready to go Tuesday, Plese said the first few weeks of the enrollment period will be “kind of a trial period.” She has encouraged consumers to wait until the middle or the end of October to purchase their plans.
“I think people are going to want to take their time – they aren’t going to want to choose right away,” she said.
She noted that the number of healthcare plans available in Arizona, and the fact that details of those plans will not be available until Tuesday at the earliest, is “a lot … to take in.” But, she added, the enrollment period is open until March 31.
Eng agreed there’s no need to rush into buying a plan on Tuesday.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re first or last,” Eng said. “It won’t go into effect until Jan. 1.”
Plese said the threat of a shutdown is an “interesting side note.”
“For those of us that have already started moving forward, we know that this is not going to be long-term,” she said of the threat of a government shutdown. “We know that they’re not going to drag it on through the end of the enrollment period, so we just kind of proceed like we have, like we’ve planned, and then – fingers crossed.”