As vast new online health care marketplaces are poised to open Oct. 1 under the Affordable Care Act, new census numbers show hundreds of thousands of suburban residents are uninsured and therefore eligible to sign up.
Local officials are trying to work to spread the word about how the often-confusing -- and controversial -- policy will work, especially in places like the Aurora area, where the rate of uninsured is 23.3 percent, among the highest in the state. Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," people will have to get health insurance or pay a penalty.
In the metropolitan region, the portion of uninsured varies widely from 9 percent in McHenry and Will counties to 16.3 percent in Cook County including Chicago, according to the 2012 census numbers released today. DuPage County had 9.8 percent uninsured, Kane County had 14.3 percent, and Lake County had 11.3 percent.
More detailed numbers showed southeastern Kane County including Aurora had one of the highest concentrations in the state at 23.3 percent, as did the Elgin area at about 18.5 percent. Meanwhile, a section of Lake County including Libertyville, Vernon Hills and Deerfield had the lowest listed concentration of uninsured people in Illinois at 4.8 percent.
Statewide, 12.8 percent of people are uninsured.
The Greater Elgin Family Care Center is among the suburban organizations that received a state grant to help explain the new health care exchange to people who are uninsured. President Bob Tanner says he has workers going through training right now, but details about what specific plans will offer and how much they'll cost remain unavailable as the federal government works to approve policies for the exchange.
"There has been a lack of clarity of what is going to be available to people," he said.
Here are the basics: Starting Oct. 1, the state and federal government will launch a website where people who don't have health insurance can go to shop for policies that go into effect Jan. 1. Some information is already available at Healthcare.gov.
People can enter basic data about themselves and see what policies might be best for them. Some people will have incomes that qualify them for help to pay for insurance, and others will be eligible to enter Medicaid -- the longtime program to provide health care for the poor -- under new Illinois rules that will let more people in.
State statistics on Medicaid show use of that program was growing faster in the suburbs than elsewhere in Illinois even before Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers decided this year to expand it.
Expanding Medicaid was controversial, especially because state officials and union leaders are still arguing about parts of sweeping cuts to Medicaid approved the year before.
State Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican and Medicaid expert, has been heavily involved in that process but said this week her office hasn't seen much detail about the insurance policies that will be offered starting Oct. 1.
"There just don't seem to be any definites," she said.
Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services spokesman Mike Claffey said what policies will be available to uninsured people will depend upon where they live, among other things.
Suburban residents will have access to some different plans than people living downstate, he said.
People will have until the spring to sign up for insurance and avoid a tax penalty, so Claffey said there's time for uninsured people to weigh their options before picking one.
"Oct. 1 is not the finish line," Claffey said. "It is the starting line."
Eric Ward, executive director of Family Counseling Center of Aurora, said his group has already reached out to local churches and other groups to get the word out that the organization is there to help people.
Ward said the advisers' role is to guide people through the health exchange while being careful not to make recommendations.
"At the root of it is helping people make decisions that are best for them and their families," he said. "We're not insurance brokers."
Tanner said his staff members are ready to help because they've been helping people navigate the state's complicated All Kids health care program for years.
"Certainly, we have quite a bit of skill and knowledge," Tanner said.
They'll also stay out of the politics of a health care plan that remains hotly controversial even as the Oct. 1 date approaches. The Affordable Care Act divided congressional candidates in the suburbs last year and almost certainly will again in 2014.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Winfield Republican, announced his backing of a proposal that would delay implementation until 2015, citing security and cost concerns for the new online exchanges.
And on the other side, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat, Wednesday plugged online tools on her website to help people get prepared for Oct. 1.
Local health care providers say they'll be watching closely to see how implementation goes.
Advocate Physician Partners Vice President Shawn Roark said he's "cautiously optimistic" the new rules will be good for the hospital. Hospitals could be more likely to get paid when treating patients with insurance.
And even getting more patients on Medicaid might be helpful, despite delays in getting reimbursed for their care, Roark says, because the hospital already treats all patients who arrive, no matter their ability to pay. So any increase in the number of insured people could be helpful.
"The patients come to us already today," he said.
Uninsured: Oct. 1 just the start date; deadline not until spring