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Navigators’ help citizens pick new health care plans

ADDISON COUNTY — Many Vermonters have been struggling to stay afloat amid waves of information related to the state’s conversion to a new health care system mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.
With that in mind, the state is providing scores of health care “navigators” to steer consumers to insurance options available through Vermont Health Connect (VHC). Administered by the Department of Vermont Health Access, Vermont Health Connect is an insurance exchange, through which small businesses and individuals who are uninsured or under-insured will purchase coverage.
Alexandra Jasinowski, a Porter Medical Center official, is one of several Addison County-based navigators who are helping local residents and small businesses select their plans through VHC. She said she’s been helping more than 10 residents per week through individual appointments and during regular appearances at locations in Vergennes, Middlebury, Bristol and Brandon. That doesn’t include general information she’s been passing out at various public events and through phone calls.
“I provide one-on-one assistance, answering general questions about the exchange; how to sign into the (VHC) Website; what is required to put an application together; and helping them understand the terms when it comes to health insurance plans,” Jasinowski said. “It’s new terminology for a lot of us. I can walk them through the entire application process.”
Jasinowski also collaborates with other organizations that have navigators, holding group information sessions and going to public events to answer questions.
“We work as a team,” she said of herself and her fellow county navigators, based at such organizations as the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, the Open Door Clinic, and Addison Community Action at 54 Creek Road in Middlebury. Help is also available at a variety of area physicians’ offices, including Middlebury Family Health, Neshobe Family Medicine and Bristol Internal Medicine.
Jasinowski said she must register consumers for the VHC health plans by appointment, because of the personal financial and medical information that must be included in the application.
“People have specific questions they want answers to and you can’t really answer them in public,” she said.
Vermonters have had to negotiate a pretty sharp learning curve regarding VHC and have therefore had plenty of questions about which health care plans to choose.
“You have confusion on what the plans mean; understanding the plans themselves was the biggest challenge,” Jasinowski said. “You also have people who aren’t computer literate… I’ve shown people how to type their names in for the first time on the application.”
Some people, on the other hand, have found the registration process easy and have completed it in 15 to 20 minutes, according to Jasinowski.
Vermonters with individual or small business health plans will now have the option to extend their current plan for up to three months, until March 31, 2014. If they choose that route, they will continue to pay their 2013 premium rate with their existing plans. Annual deductibles will restart on Jan. 1, as they do for every new plan year.
Consumers now have until March 15 to register for coverage through VHC that will take effect on April 1. The registration process has been fraught with some VHC Website glitches, including confirmation this week of a security breach back in October in which a user’s Social Security number was accessed by another user.
Jasinowski believes minor glitches should be expected given the magnitude of the registration process and the complexity of the VHC software that she said was devised in less than a year.
“I knew it wasn’t going to go smoothly at the beginning, but it takes patience and putting everything into perspective,” she said. “This is new; this is huge and exciting… It’s something more to celebrate than to criticize. It’s a very sensitive system, as it should be. You want it to be secure and you want it to be accurate.”
Some helpful hints can make navigation easier, according to Jasinowski. For example, consumers who fail to get into the VHC system on their first try should wait 24 hours before they try again. This allows enough time for the system to realize the second attempt isn’t a duplicate.
“Usually people get through on the second try,” Jasinowski said. “It’s about taking your time and being patient with the system.”
Most people that Jasinowski has helped left their appointments either very pleased or satisfied with the health plan they had been able to select. A few people were dissatisfied due to being limited to options that produced higher deductibles than they are now paying.
Melanie Clark is also a VHC navigator, working through the Middlebury-based Open Door Clinic. She, too, acknowledged some initial glitches in the VHC Website that she believes have been largely resolved at this point.
“I went from having little success in getting people enrolled because of technical errors… to being able to get just about everyone through,” Clark said. “Within the next week, people will have much greater success being able to get online (and complete the application).”
Clark began meeting with Addison County health care consumers a few weeks ago. She has met with people with a variety of feelings about the health care conversion, ranging from pleased to angry. She said most of the anger has been caused by misinformation about the VHC plans or the process or both.
Clark said most people she has been meeting with recently have been trying to sort between the health insurance plans available through the VHC, rather than register. The VHC offers choices of platinum, gold, silver or bronze through Blue Cross-Blue Shield or MVP. Details on those plans can be found at healthconnect.vermont.gov.
“As navigators, that’s how we’ve been used a lot, sitting down with people and sorting out, ‘What does this mean?’ and what works best,” said Clark, who can be reached at 989-6872 to schedule appointments.
Clark said it has been taking anywhere from one to four hours to go through the registration process with people.
“Sometimes it takes multiple appointments,” Clark said. “There are multiple plans. They take the information home and come back and talk about what they think is their (preferred) plan. We talk about it some more and maybe they’re ready to enroll.”
Anyone wanting to make a VHC-related appointment with Jasinowski should call 388-5625. An “open enrollment night” will be held at Porter Hospital on Monday, Dec. 2, from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Attendees should call a navigator ahead of time to schedule an appointment for that Dec. 2 event.
West Addison resident Mark Wiskochil registered for his VHC plan with Jasinowski’s help last month. The recent retiree recalled some early challenges, including getting an “error” on his first online try, followed by a miscategorization of his application the second time. But the third time proved the charm.
“(Jasinowski) was very helpful and walked me all the way through the application process,” Wiskochil said, adding his and his wife’s new plan should save them a few thousand dollars per year.
“Overall, I’m really happy.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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