Consumers, USF navigators join the conversation on affordable health care

Chris Dawson, 20, reared by his grandparents, lost health insurance when he “aged out” of the state foster care system at age 18.  So, the University of South Florida College of Public Health student said he was eager to be one of the first Tampa Bay consumers to seek navigator assistance when the Health Insurance Marketplace launched Oct. 1.

For the last two years, Dawson has been unable to pay out of pocket to treat flare-ups of bronchitis and recurrent sinus infections.  “I know many other students in my same circumstances — not covered because health insurance is simply not affordable,” Dawson said. “There shouldn’t be a battle between buying food and healthcare coverage.”

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Jodi Ray, project director of the Florida Covering Kids and Families program at the Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, USF College of Public Health, with Chris Dawson, a USF public health student, at the recent panel discussion on affordable health care.

Savanah Goodland, 23, a part-time St. Petersburg College student, supports herself as a full-time waitress but receives no benefits.  Goodland’s uninsured younger brother has a congenital heart defect and a recent health scare generated thousands of dollars in hospital bills. Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, starting in 2014, most plans cannot deny coverage or charge more to individuals, with a pre-existing health condition, like Goodland’s brother.

“We’ve been given a new day,” said Goodland, referring to the opportunity she and her brother have to apply for coverage through the marketplace.

Dawson and Goodland participated in a panel discussion Oct. 8 with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Tampa area navigators and consumers.  The event was held at the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.   Jodi Ray, project director for Florida Covering Kids and Families (FL-CKF) program, part of the Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, USF College of Public Health, moderated the panel.

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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius joined the panel of Tampa area navigators and consumers.

In August, the FL-CKF program received a $4.2-million navigator grant – the largest grant of eight such grants awarded in Florida — to help educate and enroll consumers in the marketplace.  The online marketplace is aimed at those cannot obtain affordable coverage through employers or government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“We’ve been busy,” Ray said of the USF-based navigator office and USF’s 10 consortium partners across the state.

The Healthcare.gov site had more than 10 million hits its first week.  Even while technicians are working 24/7 to improve the site, Sebelius said, grassroots efforts in communities across the country continue to help people apply to the insurance marketplace – online, over the phone, and with paper applications.

“It’s important to remember this first open enrollment period is 26 weeks… the earliest any benefits start is January 1.  Prices (for plans) are locked in; we won’t run out of product,” Sebelius said.  “We are very pleased with the USF navigation grant efforts.  Jodi’s organization has had lots of experience helping families understand affordable health care.”

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Sebelius answers media questions following the event at the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.

Over the years, Ray has managed a network of collaborative partnerships and served as principal investigator on several federal, state and private grants aimed at increasing enrollment in Florida KidCare, the state’s Children’s Health Coverage Program (CHIP) and Medicaid. In January, the efforts earned Ray and USF national recognition from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with the esteemed Excellence in Children’s Health Outreach and Enrollment award.

City of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Donna Peterson, interim senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the USF College of Public Health, welcomed Sebelius, community leaders, media and others who gathered for the panel discussion.

“We want to continue the conversation,” Petersen said. “How will we assure that the citizens of Tampa, Florida and the country have every opportunity to be healthy… to access quality healthcare?  That’s our mission at USF Health and speaks to the core values of our community.”

At 23 percent, Florida has the nation’s second-highest rate of residents without health insurance, surpassed only by Texas.

To check out the marketplace, go to www.healthcare.gov (Localhelp.healthcare.gov), or call 1-800-318-2596.

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Sebelius with panel moderator USF Health’s Jodi Ray

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L to R: Consumers Savanah Goodland and Chris Dawson, and USF lead navigator Michelle Ray.

Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications

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