Filed Under:Markets, Employee Benefits

Illinois offers $28 million for exchange "health guides"

CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois is taking applications for $28 million in grants for a Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange "in-person counselor" program.

The grants are supposed to go to "legally recognized organizational entities" that want to help individuals sign up for coverage through the new PPACA exchanges, or Web-based health insurance supermarkets, which are supposed to start enrolling consumers Oct. 1.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office announced Monday a competitive grant process to distribute the federal money to community groups that want to help educate consumers about the new online insurance marketplace.

Grant applications are due May 30.

The types of organizations eligible to apply include nonprofit groups, farming organizations, fishing industry organizations, chambers of commerce and unions.

"We've got a big job to do making sure that people across Illinois are aware of the affordable and high-quality health care coverage options that will soon be available through the Affordable Care Act," Quinn said in a statement. "That's why we are partnering with trusted organizations that have proven records of success and roots in communities across Illinois to ensure that no one is left out."

PPACA requires that nearly all Americans have health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a penalty. People who are uninsured are supposed to be able to use the exchanges to enroll in government health programs or shop for commercial coverage.

Illinois officials estimate that more than half the consumers who seek coverage through the exchange system will need more help than they can get from the exchange website.

Illinois officials want consumers to get that help from guides who will be hired and supervised by community organizations that, starting now, are competing for grant money.

John Peller of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago said his group is likely to apply for one of the grants. Several thousand Chicago-area people with HIV will be newly eligible for insurance under the health law, Peller said, and many will need help choosing a health plan and enrolling. Better access to health care for people with HIV will reduce the spread of the disease, he said.

"The new substance abuse and mental health coverage available under the law will be tremendously important for people with HIV, who often have depression and substance abuse challenges at higher rates than the general population," Peller said.

Insurance agents and brokers still will have a role in helping people choose health insurance, said Phil Lackman, a lobbyist for a coalition of Illinois industry groups.

The Illinois Senate passed a bill last month clarifying that the new state guides cannot recommend or endorse a particular health plan. The bill still needs approval in the House.

"A lot of people want to compare this to Travelocity (the online site for buying airline tickets)," Lackman said. "Health insurance is a more complicated decision and a more personal choice. Many people will still seek out the advice of an agent or broker."

Nearly 1.8 million Illinois residents are uninsured. An estimated 486,000 state residents will get coverage from commercial insurers through the Illinois marketplace in 2014. That figure is expected to reach 1 million customers by 2016.

Grant applications will be competitively scored. State officials intend to distribute the grants with consideration to serving various populations, regions and cultures. The University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health will run a training program this summer for organizations selected for the grants.

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