Wis. advocates gear up for health exchange launch

by Dinesh Ramde Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Community organizers throughout Wisconsin plan to begin offering sessions as early as Oct. 2 to help people being removed from the state's Medicaid program next year assess other health care options.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal money to expand Medicaid coverage, and instead the state will reduce enrollment by an estimated 92,000 people. The state plans to start sending letters later this month to those who will lose coverage after Dec. 31.

Those residents are expected to seek health insurance through a new online exchange being set up by the federal government. The exchange will allow people to shop for health insurance and compare plans, but advocates worry that many low-income residents have limited access to the Internet and could have difficulty figuring out their best options.

``There could be issues around literacy. They may not be English-speaking, they may be homeless. They could get the notice in late September, and they may not understand it,'' said Molly Bandt, director of Covering Kids and Families in Madison. ``There are still things to work out _ although on the positive end, there's a lot of energy in trying to get the word out.''

Covering Kids and Families, which works to get children and families enrolled in Medicaid programs, is among the groups planning seminars at job centers, schools and libraries across the state. Trainers will discuss the new law, explain what is and isn't changing and help people figure out which plans work best for them.

The Milwaukee Health Care Partnership has been asking churches, community leaders and advocacy organizations to help reach out to low-income people losing their coverage. The idea is that it'd be most effective to reach people through those they already know and trust, executive director Joy Tapper said. Pastors and neighbors can contact Medicaid recipients, let them know about the coming change and direct them to the partnership for more information, she said.

That strategy worked well in Massachusetts, where organizers identified word of mouth as one of the most critical factors in successful outreach, Tapper said.

``The best thing is for people to hear from trusted sources,'' she said.

As of Jan. 1, Medicaid coverage will be available only to people living in poverty. Previously, it was available to some residents earning as much as 140 percent of the federal poverty level. Along with the 92,000 people being removed from the rolls, community groups are looking to help 400,000 people who currently have no medical insurance.

Residents can start signing up for insurance through the exchange on Oct. 1.

To help, the Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program Inc. in Ashland is aiming to hold at least four informational sessions in each of 27 counties across western and northwestern Wisconsin.

Marcy Pratt, the group's chief financial officer, said the sessions will target consumers who'll be getting insurance through the federal exchange and small businesses who may want to start offering insurance for their employees.

Leaders in several community groups worried that people might try to avoid dealing with the issue because it seems too daunting or they don't have time because they're working two jobs to make ends meet.

``It's going to be a rough, bumpy ride for the first year at least,'' predicted Bobby Peterson, executive director for ABC for Health, a nonprofit law firm in Madison that helps people get health care. ``Unfortunately the infrastructure for assistance is fairly limited right now. We're just trying to develop materials that will help folks understand what's going on.''

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