Volunteers prepare to help navigate health care reform

With the biggest change of federal health care reform slated to begin next week, more than 30 islanders are learning to assist Vashon residents with the new health insurance enrollment process.

As part of a King County effort to enroll 180,000 people in the health insurance program created through the Affordable Care Act, 32 island volunteers recently participated in an all-day training session, led by Public Health - Seattle & King County. In the coming weeks, the volunteers, called “in-person assisters,” will host an informational forum, provide education and outreach, enroll Vashon residents in new plans and help them determine if they are eligible for tax credits or subsidies to help lower the cost of their coverage.

County representatives will also host enrollment sessions on Vashon in the coming months. Some of Vashon’s volunteers will attend these events and observe as part of their learning process, said islander Hilary Emmer, the main organizer behind the volunteer effort. Once they have passed a test and a background check, signed a confidentiality agreement and are fully qualified, the “assisters” will host events of their own to reach as many people as possible.

“Our goal is to sign up 1,000 people,” Emmer said.

The volunteer assistants — some of whom represent island agencies and groups — are passionate about seeing people become insured and have access to health care, Emmer said.

One of the first public events, slated for Oct. 8, will feature Callista Kennedy of Public Health - Seattle & King County. Kennedy will discuss the importance of enrolling in an insurance plan through Washington’s new health care exchange. She will also field audience questions.

“Everyone has questions,” Emmer added.

Later that week, assisters will be at the fire department’s open house, helping people enroll on Oct. 12.

As the process gets closer, Emmer and Kathleen Davis, who is a retired physician and involved in the volunteer effort, say it is important that people understand some of the basic facts behind this phase of health care reform.

Oct. 1 will mark a significant milestone when new insurance plans become available in every state. Locally, many plans will be available through Washington state’s marketplace, called the Washington Health Benefit Exchange. It is an extensive online resource where people can compare plan benefits and costs, enroll in a plan and learn if they are eligible for tax credits or subsidies. It can be found at

The island volunteers will help people navigate the exchange. Outside of the exchange, other plans will be available just as they have always been through insurance companies and insurance agents. Those plans, however, will not be eligible for people to draw tax credits or subsidies and may not offer all the coverage that plans in the exchange are required to, Emmer said.

While many are confused about how they will be affected in the coming weeks, many people will not see changes in their health plans, Emmer noted, including those who get insurance through their workplace or are covered by Medicare or Medicaid. But those who are between 19 and 64 and uninsured or pay for insurance privately may wish to turn to the exchange — and possibly island volunteers — for help. Many self-insured residents have likely already received letters from their insurance carriers, informing them that their plans will be discontinued as of Jan. 1 and assigning them to a new, possibly more expensive plan unless they select another option. It is important that people pay attention to those letters, Emmer said, as many will see increases in their rates if they do nothing.

Next year, those who do not have insurance will be penalized, and while the penalty will be small initially, there are additional reasons to become insured.

Davis, who is active in global health issues and began Shape Up Vashon, one of the organizations participating in the volunteer effort, talked recently about the benefits of having insurance. Many studies have shown that when people do not have health insurance, they wait to receive important health care, she said. With that wait, their illnesses often take a larger toll and become more expensive to treat — on both the individual and societal levels.

The Affordable Care Act is intended to change that pattern.

“This is a huge game-changer,” Davis said.

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding health care reform, but regardless of where people stand politically, Emmer and Davis say, changes are coming and everyone should understand them.

“It’s happening,” Davis said. “It will affect you, your friends or your family.”

Help with health care reform

An informational community forum will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, at McMurray Middle School.

King County will host a variety of enrollment sessions on Vashon:

4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Vashon Library

11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the Vashon Library and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Vashon Community Food Bank

4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Vashon Library

11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Vashon Library

Vashon’s in-person assisters will host at least two forums this month:

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Vashon fire station

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at Chautauqua Elementary School

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