Efforts to get people signed up for health insurance are paying off in Spokane County, where the percentage of residents without insurance has dropped to less than 3 percent of the population, according to estimates from the nonprofit Better Health Together.
More than 50,000 people have signed up for insurance since late 2013, about half of whom relied on trained “assisters” to help them navigate the state’s online benefit exchange. The sign-ups have occurred at libraries, jails, food banks, health fairs and bus stops, as well as clinics and hospitals.
“We’re going to where people are receiving services, rather than expecting them to do a Google search and find the Washington Health Benefit Exchange on their own,” said Alison Carl White, executive director of Better Health Together.
Before the sign-ups, about 13 percent of Spokane County’s residents were without health insurance, according to state estimates. About 85 percent of the newly insured qualified for Washington’s expanded Medicaid coverage for low-income adults.
The push to get people covered by insurance is occurring under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Better Health Together received an $858,000 state grant to recruit and train assisters in 14 counties, who answer questions and help people fill out applications. The 18-month grant covered communities in eastern and central Washington. The Spokane nonprofit spun off from Empire Health Foundation, which also provided financial support for the effort.
About 150 people were trained as assisters in Spokane County, including 11 employees of the Spokane County Library District.
“As far as I know, we’re the only library district in Washington state which is doing this,” said Aileen Luppert, a librarian.
She got the idea from a Midwestern library, and figured it fit the Spokane County Library District’s mission of providing information in a neutral setting. Library employees have helped 641 people sign up for health insurance over the past two years. Some had been without coverage for years.
“I’ve had women that would be crying in my office,” Luppert said. “I had one guy who’d torn his hand open working on a motor. Rather than get stitches in the ER, he’d sewn the gash shut.”
The multitude of efforts to get people signed up for insurance also targeted individuals getting out of jail.
Robert Martin, who works for the nonprofit Community Minded Enterprises, regularly visits the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Correctional Center to help inmates who are being released sign up for health insurance.
Coverage is particularly important for that population, because they need the insurance to seek treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and to continue to get their prescriptions, Martin said.
Though the drop in Spokane County’s uninsured rate has been impressive, about 11,300 county residents remain without health insurance, said Curt Fackler, Better Health Together’s network manager.
“There’s still work to be done,” he said.
Sunday is the deadline for individuals to enroll in a qualified health plan through Washington and Idaho’s health benefit exchanges. However, there is no sign up deadline for low-income individuals who qualify for Medicaid.
Better Health Together’s next outreach effort will focus on helping the newly insured understand their benefits, so they get preventative care and screenings, said White, the executive director. “Having health insurance isn’t going to make you healthier,” she said. “Having access to care will.”
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