Remember the "navigators" who helped people sign up for health insurance through the Obamacare marketplace?
They're coming back to the Tampa Bay area.
On Wednesday, federal health officials awarded nearly $10 million in grants to help fund navigator programs in Florida. The University of South Florida and the Pinellas County Commission were among the winners, nabbing $5.9 million and $580,000, respectively.
The grant awarded to USF will support its statewide Florida Covering Kids & Families initiative before and during the next open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 1.
"We are not just casting a wide net anymore," program director Jodi Ray said. "We have to make sure we're getting everybody in there. Some folks have a harder time accessing that assistance."
Pinellas County will use its grant to fund nine navigators, Health and Human Services director Lourdes Benedict said. The navigators will fan out across the county, attending health fairs and other community events to connect with people, educate them about their options and help them enroll.
"It's one of the critical components to our goal of expanding access to health care for the folks of Pinellas County," Benedict said.
More than 1.6 million Floridians signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act during the last open enrollment period — more than in any other state.
Nick Duran, state director for the nonprofit Enroll America, said the navigators played a key role.
"Consumers who received in-person assistance were nearly 60 percent more likely to enroll compared to those who started the enrollment process on their own online," Duran said.
USF's Ray said she expects the navigators to be particularly helpful this year because it will be the third open enrollment period since the marketplace launched.
"We have (navigators) who have been out there for a few years," she said. "They are well-trained. They understand the program, the policies, how to read the plans."
The Family Healthcare Foundation will spearhead the work in Tampa Bay in collaboration with BayCare Health, the Hispanic Health Initiative and several other community partners.
Ray said the navigators will target two groups of people: those who purchased ACA plans for 2014 and 2015, as well as the 3.8 million Floridians who lack health insurance.
Another navigator program, the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, will do some work in Hernando County. The organization received $1.8 million for its outreach efforts in 35 counties.
All of the recipients will have the opportunity to renew the grants for the next two years.
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.