For nearly 15 years, Jodi Ray has been on a mission to help children get health insurance. The job isn't easy, but it isn't controversial, either.
Then in August, Florida Covering Kids & Families, which Ray runs as project manager, got a $4.2 million federal grant for hiring and training nearly 70 navigators around the state to help adults shopping for subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.
For the first time, Ray was in the public spotlight. And not just because her University of South Florida-based group had received the second-highest grant in the 36 states where the federal government is running the marketplace.
Critics of Obamacare turned navigators into political fodder - and Ray, 45, suddenly became Florida's top point-person for the program.
Although navigators undergo background checks,GOP leaders complained they would put consumers' privacy at risk. Gov. Rick Scott's administration barred them from county health departments, where many uninsured and low-income people seek services.
Meanwhile, Ray has been quoted in national press stories and twice shared a stage in Tampa with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has come under fire for the rocky launch of the Obamacare website.
What does Ray make of all the attention?
"You just have to put your head down and focus on what your task is," she said. "The grant is not for me to spend my time thinking about random commentary."
Ray, a creative writing major who got into the social services field by running public health campaigns, lives in Tampa and is married with two children. She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times recently about her experience with the program.
How are things going right now with the navigator program? Are you able to enroll anybody yet?
I think it's progressing. They're getting through the application process online. People are actually getting disposition information and they're leaving with something to consider. I think the expectation a lot of people had was that it'd be instantaneous, that people would sit down with you, you submit their information, they make a decision. What we're finding is that people want to take the information with them and go home to make their decision.
It must be frustrating for you, though, because you've been hampered by the technological problems.
The way we look at is, well, we have other options. We've used the paper option and the phone. Our navigators, without blinking, have taken advantage of the fact that there are three options.
What made you decide to take Covering Kids to a much bigger program?
What this did was give us more options for helping families. We've been helping families but the frustrating part is that we've been limited by our options. For example, if a family comes in and has two young children and an adult son, we can help the kids who are under 18 but there was very little we can do for their adult child.
Were you gung-ho from the start, or did you need some convincing to get your program involved in a big project that's politically contentious?
I felt like the fact I'm in the university was a real opportunity, and a lot of our partners felt that USF had the capability and infrastructure to manage a project of this size. Since we worked from Pensacola to Monroe County already, I think there was a lot of support from partners around the state to go ahead and expand. ... Why wouldn't we do it? It makes sense. It fits in our mission, which is to reduce the number of uninsured in Florida.
Have you ever gone without insurance yourself?
When I was first hired at the university, I was hired as hourly without health insurance. I had to find health insurance myself so I was paying for it on my own. My dad's an attorney and in his world it's unheard of to go without insurance. And I never went without dental coverage because my mom was religious about the dentist. I think it was just drilled into to me.
... I was single without children at the time. Now I'm dealing with families, who are looking at keeping food in the refrigerator, and maybe they've got a child with asthma. And paying rent on $12 an hour. You start to realize the circumstances are not the same. ... A lot of these parents can't get coverage. It's felt awful to say, 'There's nothing I can do for you at this time.'"
Well, because (Florida) didn't expand Medicaid, there are still nearly 800,000 people or so whom you'll be telling essentially the same thing.
We really try to arm ourselves with the resources that are out there in these communities so that we can be as helpful as possible to the folks who come in. The one thing we're not saying is, 'We can do nothing for you.'
Are there lessons you've learned through Covering Kids that you're using now?
One of the things I talk to my navigators about ... is that you have to assure people you're assisting that you're confident that you can help them. You've got to put the people at ease. That appearance is extremely important.
You don't want them to see you log on healthcare.gov and get locked out?
You don't want them to see you frustrated. That should never show. It's 'Okay, we can't log on today. No problem. We'll do the paper application. And oh, we'll call, too.' All they need to see is you know what you're doing.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com.