BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County residents who want to know more about the Obamacare insurance exchanges and want to get the information from a live person have a few options.
The Nature Coast Community Health Center has hired two counselors to help people learn more about — and sign up for — the insurance exchanges, which opened Tuesday.
One of the counselors, Mary Ann Bonometti, spent the first week passing out brochures and answering phone calls. The second counselor should be in action this week.
"We've had a pretty steady stream of people walking in or calling, basically just looking for information at this point," Bonometti said.
For now, the counselors will be based at the center's Brooksville and Spring Hill sites, but eventually will rotate to other locations such as public libraries and community centers.
The certified counselors hired by the health center — which is operated by the Hernando County Health Department with federal grant money — are not the same as the so-called patient navigators paid for by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, but they serve the same purpose. The trained advisers work in the field and on the phone.
Childhood Development Services, a 46-year-old private nonprofit organization based in Ocala, received grant money to provide two navigators for Hernando and Citrus counties. Brandi Cooney, the agency's public relations and business development director, is one of the navigators. Another should be hired and working soon.
The navigators will be setting up outposts throughout the county, but people are asked to call and make an appointment, Cooney said.
Would-be consumers are asked to keep a few things in mind.
First, come prepared. Navigators and counselors aren't paid on commission and cannot recommend a specific plan, but can guide people to one that will work for them based on a number of factors. Bring Social Security or immigration identification numbers, as well as information about income, medications, preferred doctors and specialists. Consumers who are currently insured and are curious to know if they can get better, cheaper insurance should bring current policy numbers.
Navigators and counselors undergo background checks and do not keep personal information or copies of documents.
Also, be patient. Navigators and counselors don't have special access to healthcare.gov, the official exchange website that struggled to meet the first week's demand. Like many others, Bonometti and Cooney had trouble accessing the site. Bonometti waited as long as 45 minutes and still never made it in far enough to enroll someone in a plan.
"The volume of consumers should start slowing down next week or the following week," Cooney said.
It might make the most sense to start with a licensed insurance agent, said Don Burgher, owner of Florida Insurance Brokers in Brooksville.
Agents have a level of expertise beyond what navigators and counselors can offer and will be there to help when a claim is made, Burgher said.
"You don't want to find out that you have a health insurance plan that doesn't meet your needs once you're in the hospital," he said. "Being able to understand all of your options is very important. That really can only be done by a licensed insurance agent."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.