BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - A half-million dollar grant will pay for more counselors to help some of the most at-risk groups in Kern County get health insurance under so-called "Obamacare."
The outreach will come in the form of free counseling to get folks through the complicated process of signing up in the new Covered California health plan exchange.
Local advocates say there are lots of people who may qualify under the Affordable Care Act.
"It's about, give or take, 100,000 individuals, uninsured adults in Kern County that are expected to have access to health insurance coverage, maybe for the first time in their lives," Jan Hefner told Eyewitness News. She's director of the community wellness programs at Mercy and Memorial Hospitals. Hefner says the big grant will pay for 12 additional enrollment counselors, who will be based in various local groups and agencies.
They have specific targets to reach.
"Recently released (inmates) from incarceration, homeless, emancipated foster youth, and single men," she ticked off. Those are groups who may need health insurance, and have little access to getting information. Hefner thinks there's lots of confusion that needs to be cleared up.
Shane Lewis says he's homeless, and he has plenty of questions about Obamacare.
"I keep hearing that I'm going to have to pay a certain premium," he complained. "And that's not free health care."
From the Community Health Initiative, Edgar Aguilar says Lewis may not have to pay a dime.
"Most likely he would qualify for Medi-Cal," Aguilar said. "He would have access to free preventive care."
Aguilar says under the Affordable Care Act, states are getting funds to expand their Medi-Cal programs to include more people than it used to.
Lewis also worries if he can't afford coverage, he'll still have to pay. "If you don't have health insurance, then you're going to get fined," he said. Aguilar said no.
"If it's too costly, then you'll not be assessed a penalty," he explained.
The Covered California website is up and also ready with information.
"Covered California is a new, easy-to-use marketplace where you and your family may get financial assistance to make coverage more affordable and where you will be able to compare and chose health coverage that best fits your budget," it says. "For individuals, financial assistance is available on a sliding scale, with more support for those who earn less."
Aguilar says financial assistance will come in the form of subsidies to help pay premiums.
But, it's all so complicated that counselors are being provided at no cost. The counselors will help determine if a person is qualified for a plan, "And then, that same individual is going to be able to assist them in a step-by-step approach to complete the enrollment, and then ultimately get health coverage," Hefner said.
She says the half-million dollar grant comes from the California Endowment, which is a private foundation. With the money her agency will add five counselors, Kern Medical Center will add four, and Flood Ministries and Garden Pathways will get three counselors.
Hefner says Flood Ministries and Garden Pathways are working with the Kern County Sheriff's Department to contact inmates just getting out of jail, to help them get coverage. "They'll talk to individuals that are getting ready to be released about health insurance options in the plan," she said.
Lewis said he's staying at the Mission, he's homeless and out of work, He has no health insurance and doesn't have Medi-Cal. "I'm afraid what would happen to me if I had to go to the hospital," he said. He says he had a broken leg a while back down in Los Angeles, went to the county hospital for medical care, and paid nothing.
Hefner says that's what happens now, and tax payers are picking up the tab. "Their tax dollars are already going to pay for uncompensated care costs," she said. "If they can't pay, then society at large pays for it."
She says, that's what's supposed to change with the Affordable Care Act. "We can have a healthier society, and people will be able to take more responsibility for themselves under the provisions of Obama-care," Hefner.
Enrollment in the Covered California starts next Tuesday, Oct. 1, and coverage under the plans will start on Jan. 1, 2014. Hefner said anyone can call their offices at (866) 863-0640 with questions about qualifying, coverage and help to get enrolled.