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Looking for health insurance this fall? These 'navigators' can help

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Michigan Health Insurance Program is offering more options to people with pre-existing conditions.

If you’re a Michigander looking for health insurance this fall, relax — help is on the way. Well, at least some help.

Earlier this August, Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody reported four groups were picked by the federal government to navigate Michigan’s uninsured — or underinsured — through the new health insurance market developed under the Affordable Care Act.

On October 1 — the day the new marketplace opens up — the aptly named “navigators” will guide Michigan residents through their choices under Obamacare.

“Navigators are entities that are working on behalf of the exchange at no cost to consumers,” said Don Hazaert, the executive director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare. MCH is one of the organizations selected to navigate Michiganders, along with Community Bridges Management, the Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services, and American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeastern Michigan.

These groups will be putting Michigan’s low-income residents in contact with health care counselors who can help insurance-seekers find the plan that works best for their budget.

So how do you get in contact with these navigators?

On October 1, MCH’s EnrollMichigan.com will launch. From there, you can search for navigators around you, and coordinate assistance.

You also might see for-profit companies, like drugstores, offering help with figuring out insurance options. But exercise some caution with those, Hazaert says, because only groups working with the four organizations chosen are actually “navigators.”

“You might see ‘certified application counselors’ that want to assist consumers, but they’re not navigators,” Hazaert said.

“They have a much lower threshold for [navigator] training, and they’re allowed to have a conflict of interest,” he added. “They could be getting paid by a particular insurance company or hospital, potentially.”

Federal administrators offered $21 million for navigators, but Michigan lawmakers cut that down to $2.5 million.

MCH is the largest of the three navigators, and the only one that will connect consumers through their non-profit network across the entire state.

The other three groups will primarily work out of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

“People in the tri-county area will have options,” Hazaert said. “But outside that area, there aren’t any other options [outside of MCH].”

The limited number of agencies in Michigan is partially due to the state’s Legislature rejecting some federal funding.

Originally, federal administrators offered $21 million to the state, but that amount was reduced to $2.5 million by Michigan’s lawmakers.

The drop in funding means fewer groups were enlisted to build the navigator network in Michigan — which in part explains why MCH is the only group coordinating the counselors across the entire state.

The decreased funds will also impact how the changes will be advertised in the state — big time.

73% of uninsured adults don't know about their "new options" for health insurance.

According to a 2013 study from Lake Research Partners, 73% of uninsured adults don’t know about their “new options” for health insurance. And out of the population eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage, 83% aren’t aware of the changes either.

But with decreased federal funding, Michiganders won’t be seeing as many TV ads or billboards going out in states that accepted more financing, like Oregon.

“There’s still going to be a lot of ignorance when it comes to how the ACA works,” Hazaert said. “Everyone is going to be leaning on navigators to do that advertising work.”

Instead of major marketing campaigns, Hazaert said that MCH will embark on grassroots campaigning, in an attempt to get the word out on the options available to Michiganders.

“We’ll be out there doing door-to-door canvassing, and working with health fairs,” he said. “We’ll be there with grassroots public education.”

- Melanie Kruvelis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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