Health

After a year without, out-of-state company brings health care navigator services to Iowa

Iowa Navigator comes online after year of no federally backed counselors

(File photo) Devices used to take blood pressure, temperature, and examine eyes and ears rest on a wall inside of a doctor's office in New York March 22, 2010.  (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
(File photo) Devices used to take blood pressure, temperature, and examine eyes and ears rest on a wall inside of a doctor's office in New York March 22, 2010. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

After Iowa went a year without federally backed health insurance navigators, a West Virginia-based organization has launched a program in the state to help Iowans sign up for federal health insurance plans.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awarded $100,000 per year to First Choice Services to launch Iowa Navigator, a not-for-profit project to counsel Iowans on enrolling or re-enrolling in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and plans available on the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Iowa Navigator was officially launched ahead of this year’s open enrollment, which started on Nov. 1 and will end Dec. 15. The organization’s navigators will offer services in the state for the next two years.

“We really think this is going to be a helpful component to the marketplace as people figure out what their health insurance options are,” said Jeremy Smith, program director for the ACA navigator program by First Choice Services.

First Choice Services was launched in 1995 as a call-in service for social service health, and the company now manages help lines for gambling addiction, substance use and suicide prevention in West Virginia and other states.

Smith said many people calling those service lines needed health insurance to seek the help they needed, which became a tipping point for the organization to launch its own navigator program, ACA Navigator.

First Choice Services has served as a navigator in West Virginia for five years, and Smith said officials saw an opportunity to expand the work to other states.

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“It doesn’t matter if it’s out of state, this is something that fit into what we’re already doing,” Smith said.

He added, “the only difference is that there are different carriers in each of the states. So we had to learn about what plans the companies offer, study their provider networks, make sure medications are covered and things like that.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awarded a total of $10 million to 34 organizations nationwide this year, matching the funding awarded in 2018.

That includes First Choice Services, which was also awarded grants to employ navigators for Montana, New Hampshire and West Virginia residents, totaling to $800,000 for the next two years.

A navigator is trained to offer help to individuals, small businesses and their employees as they look for coverage options through the federal insurance marketplace. The services are free to consumers, and the advice offered must be unbiased.

In an effort to undermine the Obama-era health insurance expansion, the Trump administration has been reducing funding for navigator programs in recent years. Ahead of the 2018 open enrollment period, federal officials cut the funding from the $37 million distributed in 2017 to $10 million in 2018. In 2016, navigator funding was $63 million.

Iowa received $603,895 in 2016 in navigator funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and $181,304 in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation,

In 2018, Iowa did not receive any funding for navigator programs.

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Three organizations that previously offered the service in Iowa — Planned Parenthood, Genesis Health Care in the Quad Cities and the Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa — closed their programs because of funding reductions.

About 49,000 Iowans enrolled in a plan through the ACA marketplace during the 2019 open enrollment that took place between November and December 2018. That’s a drop of about 7.5 percent from the 53,000 Iowans who enrolled in those plans the previous year.

“When no one applied to serve Iowa as a navigator organization, we thought we could really replicate model we used in West Virginia to help people in Iowa navigate the health insurance marketplace,” Smith said.

West Virginia went through a similar cut in funding, causing First Choice Services to overhaul its navigator program.

As a result, Iowa Navigator — as well as other states’ programs — are a tele-based service. Consumers can reach a navigator through the program by calling 1-877-474-NAVI.

Iowa residents can also call 515-978-9570 to reserve a telephone appointment.

The program has only been in place for two weeks, so Smith said navigators have not reached many Iowans yet.

More information on Iowa Navigator can be found on their website, acanavigator.com/ia/home.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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