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Washington chooses agencies for outreach on state insurance exchange

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- This fall, Washington state will go live with its new Healthplanfinder website, designed to allow people without health insurance to search for and purchase affordable coverage plans as part of health care reform. Because the process can be confusing, the state has chosen several agencies to take the lead in providing assistance to those who will be using the exchange.

In Yakima and Kittitas counties, the state announced Wednesday, that lead organizer will be Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, one of Yakima's three community health centers.

That means Neighborhood Health staff will be coordinating outreach efforts among local community providers and insurance brokers, whose expertise will be vital in helping clients choose the best plans for them.

The "lead organizer" designation comes with $300,000, which will be split between Neighborhood Health and its four community partners: Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Community Health of Central Washington, Kittitas County Public Health and Sunnyside Community Hospital. It will pay for an "in-person assister" at each agency, plus a half-time project manager position at Neighborhood Health to oversee the network's efforts and the certification of staff who will assist clients in navigating the exchange.

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The community health centers -- like most providers who serve lots of uninsured and underinsured patients -- are already reaching out to existing clients who don't have insurance, and will ramp up those efforts as the October enrollment period draws closer. To reach the wider population, staff will set up tables at community events with informational materials and work with local schools and social service agencies to get the word out. They'll be available to help fill out eligibility forms and applications.

The health centers will also work with growers and other employers in the Valley who don't provide insurance for their workers to make those employees are aware of their new options.

"For years, community health centers like ours have had outreach workers and access specialists. We're really working from that model where we are used to helping people complete applications, helping them get the information they need," said Neighborhood Health's chief operating officer Rhonda Hauff.

What the health centers can't do, however, is give advice to clients on which plans to choose. That's why developing relationships with local insurance brokers will be important, Hauff said.

While the health centers are experts on Medicaid -- the state-federal health insurance program for low-income residents -- brokers advise individuals and companies on choosing commercial insurance plans and are trained to recommend specific plans.

The exchange website will list the different insurance plans available in Washington, as well as the government subsidies for those up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or an income of $94,200 for a family of four.

--Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or [email protected] ___

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By Rosbach, Molly

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