Johan Curtiss spent two days in training this month learning the ins and outs of the new state-based health insurance exchange.
Open enrollment starts Tuesday for coverage that begins in January, and Curtiss -- the executive director of the Columbia Basin Veterans' Coalition -- will have the tools to help uninsured Tri-City area residents sign up.
She's one of dozens of officials from health care agencies and other community organizations around the region who've gone through special training to become certified "in-person assisters."
Dozens more are expected to complete the training during the coming months.
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The assisters help those looking for health coverage navigate Washington Healthplanfinder, the online marketplace operated by the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.
Their free help isn't required -- people can access the marketplace, compare plans, find out if they're eligible for tax credits or Medicaid and sign up for coverage on their own.
A statewide customer support call center also has been set up to field questions.
And people also can seek help and advice from insurance brokers.
Curtiss is the only one from the veterans coalition who has gone through in-person assister training so far, but she said more might sign up for sessions as open enrollment continues.
Curtiss took the training because "I wanted to make sure the family members of our veterans are covered," she said. "The more (in-person assisters) that are out there helping individuals and families -- it's going to be important."
Where to find in-person help
Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, most Americans must have health insurance by next year or pay escalating fines.
In Washington, about 1 million people are uninsured, including an estimated 52,700 people in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.
Wes Luckey, who's coordinating the network of in-person assisters in the three counties, estimated that 20,000 of those 52,700 uninsured will be newly eligible for Medicaid -- the state-federal insurance program for the low-income -- under an expansion agreed to by state lawmakers.
And he estimated that about 20,000 will qualify for tax credits to help make purchasing insurance through the exchange more affordable.
Luckey is an employee of Community Action Connections in Pasco, brought on in mid-July after the nonprofit received a $264,000 grant to perform outreach and build up an in-person assister corps in the tri-county area. CAC was one of 10 lead organizations chosen around the state.
It plans to open an enrollment center at its Pasco office Tuesday, staffed by in-person assisters. Help will be available in English and Spanish.
Several other organizations -- from Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic to Walla Walla General Hospital -- also have sent staffers through trainings coordinated by Luckey and his team so they're prepared to help patients or clients with enrollment. More sessions will be held in the next several months.
Grace Clinic in Kennewick, which serves uninsured patients in the Tri-Cities, hasn't yet sent staffers through the assister training but likely will down the road, said president Mark Brault.
The nonprofit clinic will provide information about enrollment and make referrals to CAC, Brault said.
Tri-Cities Community Health in Pasco, which also sees many uninsured patients at its locations around the Tri-Cities, has sent several staffers through the assister training and created three new enrollment specialist positions to help the uninsured obtain coverage, said Terri Rohrman, who's coordinating enrollment services for the agency.
Local officials said they're not sure exactly how many people to expect looking for help come Tuesday. More than one official reported they hadn't yet fielded many questions from patients.
At Tri-Cities Community Health, "we're hoping for a lot," Rohrman said. "We hope to help and assist a lot of people through the process."
'Come and talk to us'
A total of eight insurance companies have been approved to offer plans through Washington Healthplanfinder, and 34 plans of varying coverage levels will be available in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.
Luckey wants ultimately to have at least 100 in-person assisters trained and certified in the tri-county area. As of last week, 51 had gone through training and were awaiting certification, which involves passing a test and a Washington State Patrol background check.
Of the almost 53,000 uninsured in the three counties, Luckey has the goal of seeing at least 3,000 enroll in coverage by the end of 2014 with help from the local network of in-person assisters.
And he hopes that at least four times that number will become newly covered altogether, whether they receive help from an in-person assister or not.
In 2014, the fine for not having insurance is $95; it more than triples in 2015, then hits $695 or 2.5 percent of household income in 2016, according to information from the Exchange.
When it comes to providing information and helping with enrollment, Luckey said the public should "come and talk to us."
"We're here to serve everybody at no cost. We want to be a community resource," he told the Herald. "If you have questions, you have nothing to lose (by asking)."
w Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald