Nearly a week after the Affordable Care Act's open enrollment period began, there has been virtually no interest among area residents in signing up for insurance being sold in the health insurance exchanges in the Mahoning Valley.
However, several agencies are gearing up for what they believe will be an onslaught of requests for help from low- to moderate-income residents in determining what kind of health insurance is available and what their costs as a December deadline approaches.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, requires every American to have some level of medical insurance or face increasingly higher fines from 2014 through 2016. The first deadline for people to sign up is Dec. 15, which would allow people to have health insurance on Jan. 1.
Participants must sign up for their insurance by the 15th of the month prior to when the insurance goes into effect.
Under the law, individuals who don't have health insurance by mid-March may face fines of $95 in the first year and rising to up to $695 annually in 2016.
To accomplish that, national, state and local agencies are helping people with the ins and outs of the program.
Trey Daly, director of Enroll America's Ohio office, will be the featured speaker at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Austintown Library. He will outline efforts to get uninsured Ohioans among the ranks of the insured. Enroll America is is a national group that educates the public about the program.
"We are giving a 2 1/2 hour presentation providing an overview of the Affordable Care Act that will discuss what is available," Daly said. "We will talk about financial assistance available, and we are bringing some of the people in the community who will be available to help residents navigate the system."
In this first week, Daly said there seems to be a significant lack of information about the Affordable Care Act.
"We are trying to fill in the information gap," he said.
Still, Daly said he is not worried that very few people have signed up for the the exchanges yet.
"There have been hundreds of thousands of people trying to get information across the state," he said. "This is showing there is pent-up demand among the uninsured for some kind of insurance."
Because the selection of insurance polices is so important, Daly suggested people initially are simply gathering information and taking their time to make decisions.
"These are decisions that should not be made hastily," he said. "People need to take their time and be deliberate, so they whatever the choose will be right for their families and their circumstances."
Access Health Mahoning Valley recently received a $93,000 grant from the Ohio Association of Food Banks to hire two counselors - also known as navigators - to help residents who are interested in learning about the ACA.
The money is part of a larger $3 million grant that was given to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks from the U.S. Department of Human Services to hire up to 40 outreach workers and volunteers.
"We received the grant to provide navigators for Mahoning and Trumbull counties," Bill Adams, director of Access Mahoning Valley, said. "We are looking to hire one navigator for each county."
Jason Elchert, deputy director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said they have become involved because an estimated 42 percent of their agency's food banks clients say they have to choose between buying food, getting medicine or seeking medical care.
"We are helping people understand what they need to apply, including the Social Security numbers of all the children living in their home, their W-2 forms, projected income for the next year and their pay stubs," Elchert said.
Elchert said they will continue to provide assistance through August 2014.
Access Health has interviewed candidates for the navigator positions. Once its board reviews and then approves the contract from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, hiring will begin.
"The navigators then will have to go through some online training and will have to be certified by the state of Ohio. So, once hired, we believe it will be three weeks before they are working with residents," Adams said. "We are looking for them to be in the field probably around the first week of November."
Navigators will not recommend health care policies.
"They will explain provisions of the law," Adams said. "They will explain that there are different levels of health insurance available to consumers to choose from."
Adams says providing information about the ACA is an extension to what Access Mahoning Valley already does in the community.
"Our mission is to connect low-income residents between the ages of 19 and 64 with a medical home where they can get care at little or no cost," Adams said. "So when we have people call in to find out about getting medical help, we will be able to tell them about the Affordable Care Act and the marketplaces that are opening.
Access Mahoning Valley is a two-year-old organization created through a consortium of hospitals and area health organizations. It is operated through donations from local health systems, including Humility of Mary and Akron Children's Hospital, and the United Way. It also has in-kind service agreements with the Trumbull and Mahoning County health departments, which supply office space.
Adams estimates there to be about 42,000 uninsured residents in Trumbull and Mahoning counties. There are approximately 1.3 million uninsured residents in Ohio.
"Even if the Affordable Care Act is successful, it is estimated only about half of those who are currently uninsured will get insurance," he said.
The health departments will send people seeking information about the ACA to Access Mahoning Valley navigators.
Kim Barrell, the coordinator of income maintenance division of the Trumbull County Job and Family Services, said the agency has not received any applications for benefits, but people are beginning to ask about it.
"They've been mostly asking questions about when and where they can apply for health coverage under the act," Barrell said.
John Gargano, director of the Trumbull JFS, said he expects that his department will see an increase in the number of applications for Medicaid.
"We have had some of employees trained on new Medicaid income requirements under the Affordable Care Act," Gargano said. "There have been modifications on whether individuals and their families qualify to received benefit assistance under the Affordable Care Act based on family size and gross income income."
Barrell says his office has more than 16,000 Medicaid case files registered in its office.
"There could be more than one person in any one of the case files," Barrell said.
One Ohio Health, a federally qualified health care center, received a $127,937 grant from the federal government to hire counselors to provide information about the Affordable Care Act and to help them enroll.
One Ohio Health has six clinics in three counties in northeast Ohio, including the Lloyd McCoy Center, 1977 Niles Road, and Warren West Health Center, 716 Tod Ave., both in Warren, and the Youngstown Community Health Center, 726 Wick Ave., Youngstown.
The clinics provide medical and dental services for low-income and uninsured patients.
There are approximately 50 federally qualified health care centers in Ohio that received grants, according to Bob Padgett, project manager for the clinic's effort to help residents navigate the Affordable Care Act application.
"As our clients come in, we will send those who do not have insurance to counselors to tell them about the Affordable Care Act and help them sign up for the exchange," Padgett said.
Approximately one-third of One Health Ohio's clients do not have health insurance, he said.