CT ramps up health insurance outreach efforts

The Connecticut state government is ramping up its outreach program to inform citizens how they can obtain health insurance when the state-based insurance exchange opens for enrollment on Oct. 1.

While Access Health CT, the state’s health exchange plan, has spent the bulk of the $15 million it received from the federal government for outreach and education programs to advertise through traditional mediums such as radio and television, the state is also using a number of unorthodox tactics to raise public awareness.

“The traditional approach of expecting people to go out of their way and sign up for complex products is flawed,” said Kate Gervais, manager of Navigator Assistor Outreach Programs for Access Health CT, adding that “face-to-face interaction is the most efficacious way of spreading the word.”

Throughout the summer, Access Health CT’s outreach workers handed out health care literature at a variety of sites from state beaches and fairs to concerts by performers such as Lil Wayne and Miranda Lambert, according to Kathleen Tallarita, the Government Affairs and Outreach Manager for Access Health CT.

“So many people are confused by the health laws, so many people think that the Affordable Care Act has been scrapped, that outreach is a critical part of what we’ll be doing over the next few months,” Tallarita said. The efforts first began in June, she said, and will escalate in the coming weeks with the intention of raising awareness about the new rules and options for Connecticut’s uninsured.

Angela Mattie SPH ’89, chairwoman of health management and organizational leadership at Quinnipiac University, said that although such outreach may seem “gimmicky,” efforts help target two demographics crucial to the success of the new health insurance exchange: young people and poor, uninsured Americans.

“The outreach they’re doing [at the beaches or at a concert] isn’t targeted at poor Americans who are eligible for expanded Medicaid but rather for young people,” she explained, adding that insurance costs would only go down enough to become affordable for poor Americans if many young and healthy Americans enrolled in the new exchanges.

Mattie likened Connecticut’s aggressive outreach program to that of a guerilla marketing campaign. While aggressive marketing is a pillar of case studies in public health academia, she said, it is too rarely implemented in reality. Mattie also praised the Access Health CT’s outreach campaign for its innovative creation of storefronts in four of Connecticut’s poorer areas including New Haven.

Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, compared the storefronts to the user-friendly stores of Apple. Prospective enrollees will be able to walk into these stores and be advised by state-licensed brokers on insurance options and a “Genius Bar” where experts can suggest solutions to those with particularly complex problems.

Tallarita added that the storefronts will be helpful for those without regular access to a computer because they can use the computers at the storefront and be guided through the entire process by experts.

Most residents will be enrolled, however, not by Access Health CT but rather by local agencies and non-profits that have been certified by Access Health CT as “Assisters.” These assisters, who were selected on the basis of prior experience in registering and serving the medical needs of low-income residents, are under the supervision of one of six Navigators across the state.

Assisters interviewed expressed optimism that Access Health CT’s decentralized enrollment strategy would work because those responsible for signing people up were the ones who most understood the community.

Karen Gottlieb, executive director of AmeriCares Free Clinics, a Connecticut-based chain of clinics for poor uninsured people that has been certified as one of nearly 300 “Assisters” across the state, said that her clinics are well equipped to inform and register low-income patients because of their past work in enrolling citizens in Connecticut’s preexisting Medicaid/HUSKY program.

“We know the community, we know their problems, and we know how to reach them,” Gottlieb said, adding that the mandatory training required to be licensed as an Assister was nevertheless beneficial for her employees.

Maria Damiani, director of Maternal and Childcare Health at the New Haven Department of Public Health, agreed with Gottlieb’s assessment. The New Haven Department of Public Health is the Navigator responsible for New Haven County, and Damiani said that the close relationships and trust both the New Haven Department of Public Health and the 101 Assisters in New Haven — including medical clinics, non-profits or churches — have cultivated with their constituents will be critical to the outreach program’s success.

Damiani aims to enroll up to 20,000 residents from the Elm City alone in the coming years, and said he agrees with Access Health CT’s philosophy of using non-conventional forms of outreach as an effective way to reach uninsured Elm City residents.

“Just last week we were at Report Card Night in a local school with our own booth and literature,” she said, explaining that many of New Haven’s poorest citizens do not have regular access to the Internet or TV.

“Those people won’t be reached by conventional mediums so you have to go out there and find them.”

The open enrollment period for the first year of Access Health CT begins on Oct. 1 and ends March 31, 2014.

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