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Kansas, Missouri Groups Get Grants To Help With ACA Sign-ups

The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved will get a $468,000 federal grant to lead the state's efforts again to get residents signed up for health insurance on the online insurance exchanges.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday announced $60 million in "navigator" grants to 90 organizations nationwide, including KAMU.

“We’re thrilled that we got the grant for another year," says Katrina McGivern, KAMU's communications coordinator. "We’ve been working very diligently trying to lay out a plan prior to getting the grant to have navigators in place to get them retrained and ready to start enrollment assistance.”

McGivern said KAMU plans to use about 160 navigators for 2015 enrollment, including many who helped with sign-ups last year and "some new blood." McGivern said the navigators' efforts are being rebranded as "Cover Kansas."

This year's grant was less than the $525,000 KAMU received last year to train navigators to help Kansans sign up for health insurance on the online marketplace created by the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

This year's open enrollment period will be from Nov. 15, 2014 to Feb. 15, 2015. McGivern says the second year of sign-ups should be smoother than the first, when the effort was beset by technological glitches for the first six weeks.

“One challenge we hope we don’t have is that the website works, unlike last year," she said.

McGivern says KAMU-trained navigators across the state helped more than 15,000 Kansans sign up for health insurance during 2014 open enrollment. She says one of the challenges for 2015 will be letting those Kansans know they need to renew their policies. Use of a navigator was not required to sign up, and about 57,000 Kansans in all used the marketplace to select a plan last year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.  

In addition to KAMU, the Catholic nonprofit health system Ascension Health received about $242,000 in grant money to help enroll Kansans. The group received a $166,000 grant last year, which Via Christi Health administered to help cancer patients and survivors obtain health insurance.

Across the state line, the Missouri Alliance of Area Agencies on Aging ($954,618), Advanced Patient Advocacy ($393,022), Community Action Agency of St. Louis County ($144,000) and National Healthy Start Association ($99,094) received navigator grants.

Advanced Patient Advocacy received a grant to operate in Kansas last year, but not this year.

Despite the technological glitches, widespread Republican opposition and several court challenges, about 8 million Americans are estimated to have selected a plan and paid for premiums under the Affordable Care Act.

Last year, after reports that one navigator had a bench warrant for unpaid medical bills, the Kansas Senate passed a bill to require all navigators in the state to pay $100 to register with the attorney general, be fingerprinted and undergo a background check, though KAMU already required background checks of its navigators.

Democrats said Senate Bill 362 was politically motivated. It stalled in the House.

"We’ll still have the strong opponents who are against the ACA and navigators as well," McGivern says. "We hope the legislation that got brought up last year does not rear its head again this year, but we’re prepared to go to battle if we have to.”

Similarly, in Missouri, lawmakers passed a measure requiring that navigators be licensed, get at least 30 hours of training and pay a fee. A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the law from taking effect.

In the most recent legislative session, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill requiring navigators to submit fingerprints for a background check. Legislators are to meet Wednesday to consider overriding that veto, as well as others.

McGivern says her organization expects a "significant amount" of new health insurance plans to be offered on the exchange this time around. Consumers are advised to study the plans before their appointments with navigators to determine which might best suit their needs.

Navigators also will have some studying to do if there are as many new options as rumored, she says.

“They’ll have to do more research on their end getting to know what all’s out there and available,” McGivern says.

Andy Marso is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio. Marso is based at KHI News Service.

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