After she was laid off from her job at Family Dollar four years ago, Anna Perry found herself without health insurance. Soon thereafter, chest pains sent her to the emergency room, where a one-night stay cost her about $10,000.
Perry, 62, paid her bill with help from some local nonprofits and has since relied on one, NC MedAssist, to supply her with free prescription medication while she has been unemployed. Last week, MedAssist relieved Perry's shoulders of even more weight — an employee helped her sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces.
"It's been a huge relief," Perry said.
MedAssist and several other local nonprofits received grant money through the Affordable Care Act to fund "navigator" positions within their organizations. These employees are trained to help people sign up for health insurance through Healthcare.gov. Since October, MedAssist has had about 340 appointments with individuals, and it would like to have more. On Feb. 15, it will team with other health-related nonprofits and county agencies for Get Covered Mecklenburg!, a countywide event that will offer free enrollment assistance from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Children & Family Services Center, 601 E. 5th St.
Leaders of the participating groups said they will focus on clearing up any misconceptions about the Affordable Care Act, and notify potential subscribers of benefits. Mark Van Arnam, regional director of the nonprofit Enroll America, a group participating in the February event, said a common misconception is that many people are concerned they won't be able to afford insurance through the exchanges. But about 89 percent of the 107,000 North Carolinians who have signed up since October have qualified for some kind of tax credit, he said.
Since last year, many of the organizations within the consortium have spread the word about Obamacare one way or another. MedAssist and others did so through their navigators, and Enroll America has about 40 to 50 local volunteers on any given weekend who pass out information at grocery stores, YMCAs and other publicly accessible venues countywide.
"We try to hook [potential subscribers] with an assister who can talk them through the process and find out what sort of subsidies are available to them so that they can fit into their budget the health care they need," Van Arnam said.
North Carolina is the only state with a statewide appointment system, accessible to anyone who seeks help in the sign-up process. Anyone can call 1-855-733-3711 to set up an appointment with an organization that has a navigator, such as NC MedAssist or Charlotte's Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (anyone planning to attend the Feb. 15 event is also encouraged to call that number to set up an appointment).
Madison Hardee, an attorney with Legal Services, attributes North Carolina's high enrollment numbers to the centralized appointment system.
"We have more than 50 appointments each week through the centralized calendar," Hardee said. "All of our appointments are booked out a week in advance."
What's also made the process easier and more popular is the steadily improving Healthcare.gov. The number of clients seeking insurance through NC MedAssist has steadily grown since October, said executive director Lori Giang. (Most who come in are in their 40s and 50s.)
Giang said MedAssist, which provides free prescription medication to the uninsured and to people who qualify, opted to train an employee to become a navigator after North Carolina decided not to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. The decision left the poorest North Carolinians, who would have been covered by Medicaid through the health-care law, ineligible for health insurance through Obamacare's exchanges. If someone comes to MedAssist's navigator and doesn't qualify for health insurance through Healthcare.gov, the nonprofit, with its long-standing ties in the community, can connect them with other resources.
"We became interested ... because we don't want people to leave a navigation appointment thinking there is no help for them, that they're going to have to go without their medication," Giang said.
The consortium will host an event similar to February's in March.