As Congress bickers over the future of the Affordable Care Act in Washington, Howard County is gearing up for one of the law's big milestones.
On Oct. 1, open enrollment for health coverage under the act, passed in 2010 and commonly known as Obamacare, is set to begin.
And Healthy Howard, a nonprofit organization created to improve the health and wellness of Howard Countians, is at the forefront of a push to educate residents of six western Maryland counties about new health care options and assist them in registering for coverage.
The group, comprising Healthy Howard and 15 contractor organizations, is working together via an initiative called The Door to Health Care. Since the beginning of September, The Door has held six community forums in Howard County and Hagerstown to present information and answer questions about the law's new changes starting Oct. 1. Another forum is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 26 in Cumberland.
At a forum Sept. 19 at Long Reach High School in Columbia, about 45 people turned out to ask questions.
Donna Bennett, of Columbia, came with her husband Gary.
Bennett said she was getting ready to apply for Medicare and "didn't know where to begin.
"This meeting helped me to explore the options available," she said.
Brenda Lee, of Columbia, brought her son and three sisters to the event. She said she got a lot of good information from the presentation and that the forums "would be even more helpful when you have the online marketplace to shop in."
This "online marketplace" is the Maryland Health Connection. Under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, states have the choice of participating in a federal health care exchange or creating their own. Maryland picked the second option and created the health connection, an online health care shop where state residents can compare multiple insurance plans side-by-side.
Across Maryland, counties have been grouped into six regions to spread the word about the health connection. Each region has a designated "connector," the county that will take charge of outreach and enrollment efforts. Howard was chosen to be the connector for the western region, which also includes Carroll, Allegany, Frederick, Washington and Garrett counties.
Over the past several months, Healthy Howard has geared up for the Oct. 1 enrollment start date, hiring a director for the Door to Health Care, as well as more than 60 staff members trained to educate and assist the public with making health care decisions.
Healthy Howard Executive Director Christine Hall said the new staff will help give the program a personal focus and provide "practical answers to individuals about the new changes in health care, personal support for making the right choices and helping people enroll into a coverage that's right for them and their families."
She added that "having someone available who can help to navigate the system is definitely a top priority." In that spirit, the new staff are called "Navigators" and "Assisters."
Assisters can explain and compare coverage plans, and Navigators help with enrollment once a plan has been chosen.
Hall said there are close to 85,000 uninsured residents in the western Maryland region, and 20,000 uninsured in Howard County.
"Our focus is on enrolling as many individuals as possible," Hall said. "The ultimate goal is that people will get the help they need in finding insurance, when they need it."
The open enrollment period lasts six months, from Oct. 1 of this year to March 31, 2014. Individuals who enroll by mid-December will have coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
Hall encouraged Howard County residents to take advantage of The Door to Health Care and to attend information and registration forums, which will be scheduled for this fall.
Having coverage "really brings a peace of mind," she said, and thus "healthier people – which of course is the greater goal."
For more information, call 1-855-288-DOOR (3667) or visit The Door to Health Care's website at http://www.doortohealthcare.org.