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updated: 9/29/2013 10:38 AM

Area groups to spread word about Affordable Care Act

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The rollout of the Affordable Care Act is here, and a massive push is under way to ensure everyone knows it.

While the state is taking the lead with mass media advertising, 44 community organizations throughout Illinois will be doing local outreach education to tens of thousands of uninsured residents. The groups then will provide enrollment assistance to those who sign up for health coverage through the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace.

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The organizations -- including county health departments, health centers and others -- received a total of $27 million in federal grant money to help explain the online marketplace, which opens on Tuesday.

"People that are legally present in the state of Illinois are for the first time going to have access to health insurance that is reasonably and affordably priced," said Robert Tanner, president and CEO of the Greater Elgin Family Care Center. "It will help them be productive. It will help them live longer lives."

Tanner said the center's mission will be to do comprehensive outreach to those who may be interested in learning about the health coverage options that will be available to them.

That's also the goal of the DuPage County Health Department, which used a significant chunk of the $1 million in federal money it received to award grants to 13 partnering groups, including Access DuPage and the People's Resource Center.

The partnership -- dubbed Enroll DuPage -- is hoping to convince at least 30,000 of DuPage's more than 80,000 uninsured residents to sign up at the marketplace. The open enrollment period ends March 31.

Enroll DuPage will use social media, a website, roadway signs and even a call center to provide information. So-called "ACA ambassadors" will attend events and local meetings to give public presentations about the Affordable Care Act.

There also will be word-of-mouth through the various DuPage organizations.

"The individuals who will most benefit from this new way of accessing health care are among those who are least likely to know that it's going to be available," said Karen Ayala, director of public health services with the DuPage County Health Department.

But groups like Naperville-based Loaves and Fishes Community Pantry and DuPage PADS work with those individuals on a daily basis.

"They already have a trusted relationship with these people," Ayala said. "We're hoping that will help maximize our efforts."

Lake County Health Department officials said their partnerships with local groups helped them meet another requirement of the federal grant.

More than 80 people have signed up to be "in-person counselors" for Lake County. They will help uninsured people sort through coverage options and explain the federal subsidies that will be available through the marketplace, officials said. The counselors also will help applicants complete the enrollment process.

"They are there to walk them through the complex nature of understanding how health insurance works," said Tony Beltran, executive director of the Lake County Health Department.

State officials said the marketplace will be accessed through a website where individuals, families and small businesses can compare health care policies and premiums and buy comprehensive health coverage.

In some cases, in-person counselors will bring computers to signup locations for people to use, according to Beltran.

Of course, the obstacles to getting a significant number of people to sign up for health care are more than technical.

Debra Quackenbush, spokeswoman with the McHenry County Health Department, says there's been "a lot of negativity" about the Affordable Care Act. As a result, there are misconceptions and myths that must be dispelled.

"What we need to do in our education efforts is to be sure that people understand the right information and how it pertains to them," she said.

For example, DuPage officials say there's a segment of the population that doesn't know the law is taking effect.

"There's a lot of people who think that this was either repealed or isn't going to take place," said Jason Gerwig, a spokesman with the DuPage County Health Department. "You've just got to get it on their radar that this happens Tuesday. That's what we're focused on."

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