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State opens grant for health insurance help

CHICAGO – The race is on in Illinois for $28 million in grants to help consumers learn how to shop for health insurance.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s office announced Monday a competitive grant process to distribute the federal money to community groups that want to help educate consumers about the new online insurance marketplace. The state will take applications through May 30. Organizations eligible to apply – according to grant information on a state website – include nonprofit groups, farming organizations, fishing industry organizations, chambers of commerce and unions.

“We’ve got a big job to do making sure that people across Illinois are aware of the affordable and high-quality health care coverage options that will soon be available through the Affordable Care Act,” Quinn said. “That’s why we are partnering with trusted organizations that have proven records of success and roots in communities across Illinois to ensure that no one is left out.”

The national health care overhaul law – President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement – requires that nearly all Americans have health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a penalty. New insurance marketplaces are scheduled to be operating in every state by Oct. 1. People who are uninsured will be able to comparison-shop for health plans on these websites and many will qualify for tax credits to help pay for coverage.

But Illinois officials estimate that more than half the consumers who seek coverage in the marketplace will need help. They’ll get that help from trained guides who, ideally, will offer unbiased and accurate information. The guides will be hired and supervised by community organizations that, starting now, are competing for grant money.

John Peller of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago said his group is likely to apply for one of the grants. Several thousand Chicago-area people with HIV will be newly eligible for insurance under the health law, Peller said, and many will need help choosing a health plan and enrolling.

Better access to health care for people with HIV will reduce the spread of the disease, he said.

“The new substance abuse and mental health coverage available under the law will be tremendously important for people with HIV, who often have depression and substance abuse challenges at higher rates than the general population,” Peller said.

Insurance agents and brokers still will have a role in helping people choose health insurance, said Phil Lackman, a lobbyist for a coalition of Illinois industry groups.

The Illinois Senate passed a bill last month clarifying that the new state guides cannot recommend or endorse a particular health plan. The bill still needs approval in the House.

“A lot of people want to compare this to Travelocity (the online site for buying airline tickets),” Lackman said. “Health insurance is a more complicated decision and a more personal choice. Many people will still seek out the advice of an agent or broker.”

Nearly 1.8 million Illinois residents are uninsured. An estimated 486,000 state residents will get coverage from commercial insurers through the Illinois marketplace in 2014. That figure is expected to reach 1 million customers by 2016.

Grant applications will be competitively scored. State officials intend to distribute the grants with consideration to serving various populations, regions and cultures. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health will run a training program this summer for organizations selected for the grants.

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