ST. PETERSBURG — Need help signing up for insurance when the Obamacare marketplace opens for business today? You may need to hunt.
The entire state has only about 35 outreach workers known as "navigators" to assist with the online marketplace, healthcare.gov, where consumers can shop for coverage and qualify for subsidized premiums.
Four navigators in Hillsborough County are ready. One is available in Pinellas. No one based in Pasco or Hernando has full approval, according to a state report.
What's going on? The federal government handed out money for the navigator program in August, which already was cutting things close. But then the state, run by Republicans opposed to Obamacare, stepped in. The Legislature drew up its own requirements for navigators, and Gov. Rick Scott banned them from county health departments.
Pinellas County, which got a $600,000 grant to hire and train navigators, planned for the health department to hire the navigators, but had to retool.
Pinellas has hired 15 people with the grant, but without their full approvals, they can only pass along information such as the website and phone number, said Natalie Jackson of Pinellas County Health and Human Services. Monday, she didn't know what to expect on opening day.
"I really don't have a clue as to whether we'll be bombarded or whether it'll just be our regular clientele," she said.
As of Monday, the Florida Department of Financial Services had approved about a third of nearly 100 navigator applications. After early applications languished, spokesman Chris Cate said the process should take less than 24 hours if they have all the needed documentation, including fingerprints and proof of federal certification.
Consumers can sign up on their own, though some experts warn this isn't a task for the inexperienced. Other options for help include independent agents paid by insurance companies, and certified assistance counselors based in federally qualified health centers.
In Hillsborough, six counselors will be posted at Suncoast Community Health Centers, said chief executive officer Brad Herremans. He said the counselors can walk applicants through the website and explain how certain plans might fit their budgets.
In Hernando, the Nature Coast Community Health Center has hired two counselors, one of whom has completed the training and is waiting for her certificate to arrive, said spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis. The other counselor is expected to finish her training by the end of the week.
"We really don't know what to expect, but we've been getting a steady stream of calls from folks who want to know more," Ellis said.
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.