County program enrolls more than 7,000 in health insurance

In its first 16 months, Healthy Howard's Door to Health Care has enrolled more than 7,000 county residents, helping reduce Howard's uninsured population.

"It is really Healthy Howard's major success story," County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said.

"The Door," as it's often called, was launched in January 2011 as a new component of the county's Healthy Howard program. It uses a pilot software program to screen applicants for eligibility in multiple health insurance programs, including the MarylandChildren's HealthInsurance Program, Medical Assistance for Families, Pregnant Women and Children and the Primary Adult Care Program.

If an applicant is determined eligible for a program, the Door also aids in getting the person enrolled.

About 25,000 county residents were without health insurance coverage in 2010, according to American Community Survey estimates from that year, the most recent available.

As of April 30, the most recent reporting period, 7,067 people had been enrolled in an insurance or a health plan through the Door.

"It's both education and ease that have been important in getting the numbers up," Howard County Health Officer Peter Beilenson said.

The ease is because residents can find out if they qualify for health care plans — and also apply — at the same place. Previously, the uninsured would have to visit multiple agencies to apply for the various programs.

Education, Beilenson explained, comes largely from the increasing awareness about Healthy Howard, as well as collaboration with other community service organizations.

"We're doing a much better job of reaching out to them and they're getting to their constituents," he said.

Healthy Howard Executive Director Liddy Garcia-Bunuel said before the nonprofit opened the Door, two-thirds of the people who came out to enroll in the Healthy Howard plan did not qualify because they were eligible for other programs.

"We did what we could to help them fill out applications, but we basically were just referring people to these other programs," she said.

Garcia-Bunuel said the Door serves about 35 people a day. Residents screened through the Door who do not qualify for other programs can qualify and be enrolled in the Healthy Howard plan.

"Healthy Howard has always been the safety net, the last resort," Beilenson said.

Critics laud shift

Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she had always felt that the $500,000 a year Healthy Howard receives from the county could be used to reach a larger portion of the uninsured population. The Healthy Howard plan is capped at 750 participants.

Watson said she was surprised to learn that the Door helped enroll approximately 5,000 residents in its first year.

"I was really very pleased, because I felt that the tax dollars going into (Healthy Howard) were reaching so many more people," she said.

Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican and another critic of Healthy Howard in the past, said the program "could have done this from the beginning without wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars."

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care For All! Coalition, a group of more than 1,200 faith, labor, business and community organizations, and a supporter of Healthy Howard, said the Door "is a wonderful thing. I wish every county in the state did it."

The software used by the Door was intended to be a pilot for other jurisdictions, but Garcia-Bunuel said it won't be used in other parts of the state until the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014 if it is upheld by theU.S. Supreme Court.

The Healthy Howard plan and several of the statewide programs the Door currently screens applicants for will become obsolete if the health care mandate is implemented.

But the Door can play a role as "the navigator of the county under the Affordable Care Act," helping enroll residents in federal programs, Garcia-Bunuel said.

Meanwhile, two additional bilingual customer service representatives are slated to be hired to help serve the continuing demand at the Door. Currently, the Door is staffed by three full-time and two part-time representatives, as well as a manager.

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