Demand for insurance grows, puts spotlight on In-Person Assisters

Carolina Marx was happy to have insurance when her daughter was born – and now she’s helping others get covered through Washington Healthplanfinder.

Carolina Marx has insurance for her own daughter – and she’s helping others get covered through Washington Healthplanfinder

A day in the life …

Meet the unsung heroes of the health reform roll-out — in Washington state and across the country. In-Person Assisters (IPAs) are helping folks navigate the Washington Healthplanfinder website, compare coverage plans and overcome any technical barriers to enrollment.

Without IPAs, countless people would be unable to access the health care coverage they’re eligible for.

A network of IPAs fanned out across King County, starting on October 1st. They each have 25-30 hours of certification training. Their focus has been on clients who have limited access to computers, speak limited English, or have other barriers to using the online enrollment system.

They’ve also become experts at solving error codes during these early stages, as the state and federal websites have worked out bugs in the systems.

“They get so excited — I’ve even had people cry!”

Carolina Marx, an IPA with Public Health – Seattle & King County, never knows what to expect going into work each day.  

Her hours, based on customer needs, are unpredictable. Her “office” changes multiple times a day, from community centers and food banks to libraries and schools. Some mornings, she doesn’t know what language she’ll be communicating in for the rest of the day.

Shopping health at Crossroads Bellevue

A long row of IPAs at work at Bellevue Crossroads

But the one constant in Marx’s line of work is that she makes a positive impact on peoples’ lives every single day.

“The biggest reward for me is seeing people finally access the health care they didn’t have before in a way that’s affordable,” she says. “They get so excited — I’ve even had people cry! I get this kind of positive feedback every day.”

Marx used to work for the Washington Department of Health & Human Services before joining Public Health – Seattle & King County. She spent the past six years helping Medicaid and Medicare clients sign up for their benefits. Now, with Washington’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, she’s seen a huge spike in the number of people coming to her for help.

“The idea is to always be in front of people, “she says. “To be out in the community helping people sign up for whatever they need.”

Tackling language barriers

Marx is part of an access and outreach team that serves many lower-income neighborhoods and immigrant enclaves in South King County. She says there is higher-than-average need for technical help with enrollment in many of the communities she helps — which creates a unique set of obstacles.

Language barriers are the first critical challenge. Being bilingual in Spanish and English helps Marx tremendously when working with South King County’s large Latino population — in fact, she says the majority of her clients are native Spanish speakers.

But she also gets plenty of clients who speak Tigrinya (Eritrean) or Korean as their primary language. In these cases, she must rely on King County’s phone interpreter service to aid communication, which usually doubles the amount of time spent on each application.

“We’re stretched really, really thin,” she says. “We wish there were more resources, so we had enough time to help every person every day.”

When IPAs arrive at an enrollment site and find there isn’t enough time to help everyone waiting in line, they will either refer clients to other enrollment events in the area or make individual appointments to help them at a later date. Sometimes, Marx says she also will stay an hour or two after an event is over to make sure everyone gets the help they came for.

Just as exciting — their first email account

Lack of access to technology is an even bigger obstacle. Marx says she sees a lot of people who can’t sign up for health insurance on their own because they don’t own computers — or even have email addresses.

Helping people create an email address during the application process is — surprisingly — one of the most emotionally stirring parts of her day. Sometimes, she says, people are as excited to sign up for an email account as health insurance!

“They get so excited and call all their friends,” she says. “They just get so happy and empowered. It doesn’t even matter if they can use it or not — all that matters is that they actually have one. It’s really sweet.

“Sometimes when you think you’re making a difference in one way, you’re really making a difference in another way entirely — and that’s amazing.”

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