TAMPA - The Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday awarded $67 million in grants to 105 navigators, or groups of people who will help uninsured Americans sign up for health insurance beginning in October.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made the announcement at the University of South Florida, which received a $4 million grant. Eight groups in Florida will receive a total of $7.8 million.
Florida is one of the three states where federal officials hope to add millions of young, uninsured and healthy adults to the pool of people who will buy health insurance through the state exchanges created by the 2010 health care law. California and Texas are the other two states.
"We know that a lot of people prefer in-person help," Sebelius said of the navigators, adding that the helpers will receive an initial 20 hours of training, as well as additional training throughout the year.
"We know there's a lot of work to be done, but we'll be ready for whatever comes up," she said.
The grants come as the law's supporters and opponents argue about its merits and potential impact. Organizing for Action, the non-profit political group backing President Obama, released a third advertisement to explain the law's benefits, while Crossroads GPS, a political group created by Republican strategist Karl Rove, continues its media campaign criticizing the law.
Some Republican officials, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are calling for a government shutdown at the end of September to stop funding for the law, a move that other Republican officials are calling counterproductive and suicidal for the party's chances.
HHS looks for groups who already have networks in place, who already have connections" to be navigators, Sebelius said. "We had lots more people apply than we could fund," she said.
Sebelius also recognized Thursday the more than 100 volunteer organizations educating people about the exchanges. The exchanges are online marketplaces where people may buy health insurance from private companies. At healthcare.gov, consumers can compare benefits and costs of several plans. They will also be able to see whether they qualify for a subsidy to help pay for insurance.
HHS officials have tried to keep the process of buying insurance but acknowledge that many Americans will still need help. A recent survey found that just 14% of Americans understood basic insurance terms, such as "premium" and "deductible."
Often, people have been shut out of the insurance system because of pre-existing medical conditions, poverty or simply not being able to quickly choose a plan because information was not available.
Across the nation, the states have also taken a role in advertising the law. In the District of Columbia, exchange spokesman Richard Sorian said, about 35 organizations have received training to help people enroll, and a call center will be open 24 hours a day and seven days a week to answer questions, because some people who may be eligible for subsidies may work two or three jobs.
District officials have also asked for help from community leaders, such as churches, African-American groups, African-immigrant organizations and LGBT groups, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant association.
"We see the population that is uninsured as fairly hard to reach," Sorian said. "So we're taking a systematic approach."
In Hawaii, the state will start running television advertisements and they are making presentations to community organizations that will also promote the exchanges, said Brian Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Hawaii Health Connector.
"I think people are just now realizing the law takes effect Jan. 1, and they're saying, 'What do I need to do?'" he said. "There's a lot of excitement."
Illinois has just started training its navigators, and 44 community organizations will help enroll people in insurance, state health care spokesman Mike Claffey said.
In Maryland, officials are training 325 navigators and 5,000 aides known as "assistors," said Danielle Davis, spokeswoman for the Maryland Health Connection, beginning the last week in August.
In Arkansas, the Health Connector website launched July 1 and has had 91,000 individual hits.
"We've had robust outreach in every county," said Deputy Insurance Commissioner Cindy Crone. "We've had a lot of positive response."
They have a state "guide" program to help the federal navigator program, but state legislators decided all of those who assist people must have licenses.
The federal government has also launched a 24-hour-a-day call center, and 1,200 community health centers are also working to educate people.
Navigators must follow strict security and privacy standards to protect personal information, such as Social Security numbers and income, Sebelius said.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)