Federal Officials Announce ‘Navigator’ Grants To Help Alaskans Buy Health Insurance

On October first, the federal government is scheduled to have its health insurance marketplace up and running in Alaska under the Affordable Care Act. If you’re not sure exactly what a health care marketplace is, you’re not alone. So, on Thursday, the Regional Director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Susan Johnson, announced grants to two organizations to help Alaskans figure out how to use the new marketplace. They’re called “navigators” and Johnson says they’re critical.

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“Without them this could become a best kept secret so that people come January would have had no idea that the marketplace was there much less what was inside it and available to them.”

The United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium are the two navigator grant recipients. They’ll each receive $300,000 to reach out to Alaskans and help them shop for health insurance in the online marketplace and figure out if they qualify for federal subsidies to help pay for it.

The United Way will focus on urban areas in the state while ANTHC will work mostly in rural Alaska. The state would have been eligible for substantially more outreach funding if Governor Sean Parnell had decided to set up a state based marketplace or exchange. But Johnson says she’s hopeful the funding will be adequate.

“The degree of difficulty in Alaska is immense. Much more than Outside or in the lower 48. Just the distances, the extremes and yet, what I know about Alaska is the innovation that rises to that occasion is also huge.”

The federal government is operating a consumer call center to answer questions 24 hours a day in 150 languages.  They hope to include Yup’ik soon. Johnson says the local navigators will be essential for getting the word out.

United Way President Michelle Brown says the organization is already committed to helping Alaskans access information about health care. To help residents navigate the new health care law, she says United Way will build on existing infrastructure:

“We’ve got an amazing web now of Alaskans who help Alaskans.  And this enables us to take advantage of that web and get information to people so they can make the best choice that they need to make for themselves and their family.”

In addition to the navigator grants, the federal government is giving a total of $1.8 million to 25 community health centers across the state to help Alaskans enroll in health insurance coverage. Alaskans should be able to start shopping for health insurance October 1st for coverage that would begin on January 1st.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News. It was amended to clarify that Yup’ik is not currently one of the languages translated on the federal government’s health information call line.




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Annie Feidt is the broadcast managing editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atafeidt@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anniehere

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