LUTZ — Matt Sommers showed up at the Lake Park homecoming powwow this week with a single mission: to spread the word about health insurance.
It wasn't easy.
A few people took fliers about the Affordable Care Act marketplace, which opens for enrollment Sunday. But others politely declined, turning their attention instead to the colorful Native American costumes and spirited dancing.
Sommers, a trained health insurance adviser known as a navigator, saw it as progress.
"Just being present in the community is important," he said.
Navigators like Sommers have been helping Floridians get coverage under the Affordable Care Act since 2013. In past years, uninsured people came to them. But this year, navigators face the daunting challenge of reaching the state's 825,000 uninsured Obamacare holdouts and convincing them to enroll.
They have a lot of ground to cover, said Jodi Ray, director for Florida Covering Kids & Families at the University of South Florida, the state's largest recipient of federal funding for navigators.
"We're honing in on our rural populations," she said. "We're trying to reach a lot of folks who are the young-adult population. We're working hard to reach more Hispanic populations across the state. We will be working with the re-entry population."
It will take some creativity.
Case in point: A handful of navigators went to a zombie festival in Lakeland earlier this month to find uninsured millennials.
The navigators will do more than make the case for coverage; they will explain what happens to people who choose not to enroll. Next year, the penalty for not having insurance will increase to either $695 or 2.5 percent of a person's household income — whichever amount is higher.
"That could potentially cover an individual for up to eight months," Ray said.
About 9.9 million Americans have Obamacare health insurance plans, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In a nod to just how tough finding new enrollees will be, federal health officials are hoping to boost the number of people with ACA plans to only about 10 million by the end of 2016.
"We believe 10 million is a strong and realistic goal," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said recently.
Florida has had success in the past. About 1.3 million residents have coverage under the Affordable Care Act, making the state's enrollment second only to California's.
But there is an opportunity to increase enrollment even further. An estimated 30 percent of the state's 2.8 million uninsured residents are eligible for tax credits to offset the cost of coverage, according to a recent analysis by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Milton Vázquez, the Florida spokesman for Enroll America, said navigators will be focusing on the so-called "young invincibles," healthy young adults who don't see a need for insurance.
They will also continue doing outreach in black and Hispanic communities.
"Despite historic gains in the African-American and Hispanic communities, people in those communities are still much more likely to be uninsured," Vázquez said.
A number of nonprofits and government agencies will sponsor navigators in the Tampa Bay area, including the Pinellas County Human Services Department.
The Family Healthcare Foundation will deploy a dozen full-time navigators and seven part-time navigators in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties, executive director Melanie Hall said. The organization also will partner with the Hispanic Services Council, the Healthy Start Coalitions in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and the BayCare Health System, among other groups.
One of Hall's goals for 2016 is to clear up misconceptions about cost.
"People are convinced they can't afford it," she said, pointing out that 90 percent of Floridians with Obamacare plans receive financial assistance. "We can show them that they qualify for a tax credit and show them some plans that are affordable."
She also wants to help those with existing coverage shop around for better plans.
Despite the challenges, leaders like Vázquez are optimistic.
"We knew that it was going to be a marathon and not a sprint," he said. "We're going to continue to grind along to make sure we find those uninsured populations and get them the information they need."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.