USF navigators receive largest grant in Florida

A health care navigator informS Floridians of their health insurance coverage options at a USF event during last year's health insurance enrollment period. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

With open enrollment for the health insurance marketplace beginning Nov. 1, it is important for eligible consumers to know how to use the marketplace and which insurance plans are best for them.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced $67 million in three-year grants to 100 organizations across 34 states to fund public outreach services. These initiatives, called navigator programs, were created to help health insurance consumers evaluate their options with one-on-one education.

USF’s Florida Covering Kids & Families’ (FL-CKF) Navigator program received $5.9 million in grant awards, an increase of more than $500,000 from last year.

Jodi Ray, an instructor and the program director of FL-CKF, said USF receiving almost 9 percent of the nation’s grant awards is likely due to the university’s existing experience with helping the public obtain health coverage. 

“FL-CKF has been doing this for about 17 years,” Ray said. “We have a long history being able to provide this kind of assistance to communities all over the state.”

She said the grant will directly fund the services of navigators, people who educate health insurance consumers about their options, in all 67 counties in Florida. 

Ray said FL-CKF will also host a series of mass insurance enrollment events called “Nav-Labs” across all USF campuses and will have a team of USF navigators. The program held Nav-Labs at USF during the previous two years since the launch of the health insurance marketplace, and Ray said USF navigators have been able to assist many eligible USF students with finding insurance.

“Anyone who works, has a job, files taxes and makes over 100 percent of the federal poverty level has to have some insurance. If they don’t have health insurance, they could get a penalty on their taxes,” she said. “We know a lot of students work and a lot of students would probably like to have access to health insurance. We know that having access to health insurance does impact academic success.”

Ray said FL-CKF will work with other organizations throughout Florida to pair health insurance consumers with navigators who are knowledgeable about all aspects of health insurance, background checked and fingerprinted, and familiar with the communities they help to educate.

“We need folks who are trained … and can be trusted to handle personal information,” she said. “They are well-trained to provide assistance on the different health plans — help with enrolling, filling out the application and (answering) a wide range of questions from, ‘What is health insurance?’ … all the way to, ‘How do you use health insurance now that you have it?’”

Ray said enrolling for insurance can be very complex, especially for consumers who have had very little access to the health insurance marketplace. She said this is why navigators physically sit down with consumers to go over insurance plans objectively based on consumers’ needs and priorities.

“When you’re talking about things like deductibles and co-insurance, out-of-pocket costs and co-pay, it starts to get very confusing,” she said. “It’s very important that the navigator (provides education) in a way that is easy for the consumer to understand because … for someone to keep their coverage, they have to see the value in it, and that means knowing how to use it.”

Ray said the grant will also pay for a communications campaign to inform those who have not heard of navigators about their services, including Nav-Labs across the state, a series of phone banks and social media advertisements.

“Every year, it’s going to get a little tougher to get this information out to people who maybe can’t be reached by traditional … methods,” she said. “We have to communicate in a targeted way to folks that need this information that we aren’t reaching with our standard outreach efforts.”

The current $5.9 million award is for the first year of the three-year grant. Ray said to renew its grant for the second and third years, USF would have to demonstrate positive first-year results and submit a budget plan for the next year for approval by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Open enrollment for health insurance coverage begins Nov. 1, but some may be eligible for special enrollment dates, and Ray said navigators can help consumers determine their eligibility.