Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the correct name of VNA Health Care
Batavia residents Doug and Amy Thompson sat at a small table during a Geneva health insurance enrollment event, put their pay stubs and personal paperwork in front of them, and huddled around a laptop with navigator Nyla Whitehead.
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Where to find a navigatorEditor's note: This story was updated to provide the correct website for McHenry County's Health Department, www.mcdh.info
For health insurance coverage that begins Jan. 1, the deadline to enroll is Monday, Dec. 23. Enrollment will continue through the end of March.
To find a navigator in your area, go to https://localhelp.healthcare.gov and type in your city or ZIP code. You can also call your county health department.
• McHenry County residents can check www.mcdh.info
• Lake County residents can go to http://health.lakecountyil.gov/Primary/Pages/AffordableCareAct.aspx, call (847) 377-4999, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Kane County residents can go to kanehealth.com/aca.htm
The father and daughter had spent weeks reviewing their options on healthcare.gov. Now, they wanted a navigator to guide them through the online enrollment process.
They worked with Whitehead for more than an hour, occasionally stopping to ask questions or print out pages.
Once enrolled, the Thompsons stood up and shook Whitehead's hand.
"Thank you," Doug said to her, with relief in his voice. "You've been just super."
Handshakes and even an occasional hug are typical for navigators, who have the task of helping people understand their insurance options and enroll in one of 60 different plans offered under the federal health care law.
It's been a busy week for navigators, as the deadline is Monday to enroll for coverage that begins Jan. 1
The health insurance navigator job -- also referred to as in-person counselors or certified application counselors -- is not all smiles and handshakes, though. It requires intense training, infinite patience, long hours, and an underlying desire to help people, even those venting frustration with the system or with President Obama.
It's also a temporary job. Most of the 1,574 navigators hired in September will be terminated on March 31, 2014, when enrollment in the federal program ends.
To become a navigator requires 20 hours of online federal training, two 10-hour days of in-person state training, follow-up webinars, trial runs and more. Their wages, funded by federal grants, range from $9 an hour for a part-timer working evenings in rural Illinois to $45,000 a year for a full-time project coordinator job in Chicago that requires experience in public speaking and community organizing.
Money isn't the main motivator for most navigators, though.
"I just want to do this to help people," said one of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital's bilingual navigators, Alejandra Pastranos, echoing her colleagues.
Pastranos, 27, of Elgin, quit her product technician job to become a navigator and now works roughly 50 hours a week, bouncing among Advocate facilities in Barrington, Crystal Lake and McHenry.
Since enrollment began Oct. 1, suburban navigators have signed up thousands of people for Medicaid or private health insurance through the marketplace. As of Nov. 30, more than 67,000 applications were completed statewide, according to the federal government.
While helping people is rewarding, the navigator job comes with plenty of challenges. The main one, navigators say, is technical problems with healthcare.gov or with their own government-provided computer equipment. At first, healthcare.gov's glitches crippled the enrollment process. People who took days off work or arranged for baby sitters would make appointments but then be unable to enroll. But since the fixes, problems have been rare, navigators say.
"It's easier than doing your taxes online," said navigator Jillian Phillips, employed with Chicago-based Campaign for Better Health Care, while assisting at an enrollment event at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.
Lauren Mitchell, of Wheeling, a bilingual 23-year-old, took the navigator job through Aurora-based VNA Health Care while waiting to hear back on her medical school applications.
"It's a hard job, but I like it. I like working with people," she said. "But some people ... were upset that they couldn't have the freedom to decide whether or not they had health care. Or they complained about socialism and were worried the government was trying to take over. They'd say, 'They tell us we have to have insurance or they'll fine us, and then the website doesn't work.'"
Educating people about their new health insurance options often diffuses their anger, she said.
"We usually find some sort of solution for (people), and that's really rewarding," she said. "They haven't been able to see a doctor in years, and now they'll be able to."
Navigators have worked everywhere from a booth at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg to local libraries and churches. Most are stationed at suburban social service agencies and hospitals.
They sometimes drive an hour or more each way to enrollment events, where they'll unpack their laptops, connect their Wi-Fi and printer, and begin hours of back-to-back appointments. Many will offer their cellphone numbers and emails in case people have follow-up questions.
They're trusted to enter people's personal income and health information into the system and be unbiased about which plan to choose.
"People don't know their options, so we make it comfortable to ask questions," Phillips said. "I've been shocked by how sweet and patient and grateful people have been. It's a completely different experience from what you hear about in the news."
Every navigator can tell stories of helping people. Navigator Jon Rapp recalls a suburban man who had been downsized from full-time to part-time work and was paying $660 a month for COBRA continuation health insurance. Through the marketplace, Rapp said, they found comparable coverage in the $130-a-month range.
"It's really just about helping people make educated health insurance decisions for themselves," said Rapp, also a manager at JOURNEYS The Road Home in Palatine, an organization that helps the suburban homeless. "It's just nice to have someone who knows a little more about it, so you can bounce a question off them."
With her first client in October, Pastranos said healthcare.gov kept kicking them off mid-enrollment, frustrating both her and the couple she was helping. But she was determined to carry on and eventually got them enrolled.
"I said to them, 'I'm not going to rest until I help you. If I have to stay here for three or four hours, I will,'" she said. "Afterward, (the man) said, 'I'm so glad we found you,' and he and his wife hugged me."
Pastranos recalls a time one woman got mad at her because she had an invalid email address which was preventing her from enrolling -- something Pastranos couldn't fix for her.
"She was really angry," she said. "I try to be patient with people, though, because I understand how stressful it is."
Navigators say it's amazing to watch people transform from stressed to relieved.
"For something this complicated and this important, with a deadline attached to it, I just felt like I needed someone to walk me through it," said Myra Webster, 53, of North Aurora, who signed up for insurance during a recent enrollment event at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, one of three such events coordinated through DuPage United. "It helps to have a human being to talk to."
• Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.