Only a fraction of the expected army of outreach workers will be certified and ready Tuesday to help Illinois residents sign up for insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law, state officials told The Associated Press late Friday.
That will leave most people on their own to figure out the complicated enrollment process -- at least during the first week of a six-month enrollment period.
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Only around 100 workers will be certified by Saturday, said Kelly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the new Illinois insurance marketplace where people will be able to comparison shop for health plans starting Tuesday. Sullivan said Illinois officials would work to certify "hundreds more" by Tuesday's launch.
Officials have said that 1,200 temporary outreach workers, hired with federal grant money, would ultimately be trained and certified. About 1.8 million Illinois residents are uninsured, about 15 percent of the population.
The outreach workers are important because the enrollment process is complicated and many consumers will need assistance. They will help walk people through the new health insurance options available to them through the online marketplace. Health care marketplaces, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, will operate in every state.
Sullivan pointed to a delay on the federal government's part as a reason for the backlog in certifications. The required federal training program was available only recently, and many workers were finishing it this week, she said. The situation is "not unique to Illinois," she said.
Most workers had already gone through required state training and fingerprint-background checks, she said, but they couldn't get a required Illinois certification until they'd completed the federal course.
"We've been personally calling them," reminding each worker to complete the certification process after they complete training, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the ultimate impact would be limited. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up if they want coverage to start Jan. 1. After that, they can still enroll through the end of March to avoid penalties for 2014. The health law requires most Americans to have health insurance starting next year.
"We don't expect a deluge (of people trying to enroll) in the first week," Sullivan said. "We don't want a deluge. ... The real deadline is March 31."
The state's advertising campaign won't launch fully until outreach workers are in place and ready, she said.
Earlier this week, Illinois announced partial price information for insurance plans that will be sold on the marketplace. Prices looked lower than expected, with a monthly rate as low as $120 for a young nonsmoker in Chicago. The name of the marketplace was also unveiled: Get Covered Illinois. The website where people can start shopping for insurance on Tuesday is GetCoveredIllinois.gov.
Most Illinois residents will be able to choose from at least 34 plans when the marketplace goes live. In some parts of the state, the choices will be even greater.
Consumers must wait until next week to learn exactly how much they'll pay. New tax credits will lower costs for some, depending on household income.
Outreach workers who are waiting for certification can answer questions Tuesday but can't help people enroll, said Megan Neubauer, manager of Affordable Care Act outreach for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, one of the nonprofit groups that received funding to hire the outreach workers.
"We cannot enroll them," Neubauer said. "We can definitely do education. We can talk them through what some of these changes mean."