Health Exchange Navigators

Since it was launched on October 1, the federal Health Insurance Exchange website has been plagued with problems. And for the first time since then, President Obama spoke about it today saying -- in his words -- that no one is madder about it than he is. While the President promises a fix, hundreds of so-called navigators are working to help Illinoisans make sense of buying health insurance with the new exchanges.

39-year-old Sandra Candelaria works as a quality control specialist but her employer doesn't offer health insurance. When she tried getting some on her own, she said it was too expensive. Now she's looking into what ObamaCare has to offer but she's not quite sure how it works.

“I didn't understand really what the marketplace was, and I wanted to learn more about it,” she said.

So Sandra recently met with one of the estimated 800 health care navigators in Illinois. Ruth Mendez is a counselor at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, but is now a certified navigator as well.

“We're just basically here to kind of help you through the website, understand it, really, the concepts of how it works,” said Mendez. “It’s really not that hard. But in our communities, there are a lot of people that are computer illiterate first of all. Second of all, they might not understand it. Right now, they’re working on getting a Spanish website up.”

The state website Get Covered Illinois is where people seeking health insurance have been told to go. The site screens prospective insurance buyers for such things as family size and income.

But, like 36 other states, Illinois opted not to operate its own health insurance exchange where people can compare insurance plans. Instead, Illinoisans are redirected to the federal website which is weathering a storm of problems.

For the first time since it became operational three weeks ago, President Obama addressed the issue today, trying to put it in the best possible light:

"Of course you've probably heard that healthcare.gov, the new website where people can apply for health insurance, and browse and buy affordable plans in most states, hasn't worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work. And the number of people who’ve visited the site has been overwhelming which has aggravated some of these underlying problems," he said." "There's no excuse for the problems. And these problems are getting fixed. But while we're working out the kinks in the system, I want everybody to understand the nature of the problem. First of all, even with all the problems at healthcare.gov, the website is still working for a lot of people, just not as quick or efficient or consistent as we want. And although many of these folks have found that they had to wait longer than they wanted, once they complete the process, they're very happy with the deal that's available to them."

Illinois state officials say they don't know how many Illinoisans have been able to get insurance through the federal website, but they do say the state’s website has received more than 19,000 applications for the new Medicaid expansion since October 1.

In the meantime, part of the work that navigators are doing is trying to get the word out to the uninsured. Salvador Cerna is a regional outreach coordinator for Get Covered Illinois.

“One of the main things that we're doing this month is we're educating -- doing outreach and educating,” he said. “That part of our campaign is working great.”

And while navigators are forbidden to give recommendations on what plan a potential insurance buyer should take, they are helping consumers through some often confusing and technical aspects of insurance buying.

“Now when you go into the marketplace and you start seeing all of the different insurances, deductibles, copays, percentages, things like that, that's when they might have a little bit of a hard time understanding it,” said Mendez.

The ultimate decision is left in the hands of the buyer. But for now, people like Sandra Candelaria are at the mercy of a malfunctioning federal website which leaves her unsure of when she might be able to get insurance.

State officials say that more than 132,000 Illinoisans have gone through the screening process on the Get Covered Illinois website so far. But no data is available yet on how many state residents have obtained health insurance from the federal website exchanges.