When Highland Park resident Tom Decker lost his job last winter, his family lost its health insurance.
He enrolled his kids — Madeline, 4, and Eli, 5 — in the state's Medicaid program for children. His wife, Dana, who has a preexisting health condition, remains uninsured. He pays $600 a month to insure himself.
Decker greeted the unveiling of "Obamacare" this week with open arms.
"It may not be everything we want it to be, but it's going to be a hell of a lot better than what we have now," said Decker, 47, who now runs a small spray foam insulation business.
This week, thousands of Lake and Cook County residents got new health care options through the state's online "marketplace" for insurance plans. Uninsured residents were allowed to begin shopping different coverage options, from which they'll be required to select by March 31 to avoid a tax penalty. The insurance marketplace opened Tuesday to a mix of excitement, confusion and concern.
To brace for the sweeping changes, state and local agencies rolled out broad initiatives to help consumers navigate the new options. For example, the Lake County Health Department is using an $800,000 state grant to connect more than 18,000 people to health care. Officials estimate 71,500 people in Lake County do not have insurance.
"There are lots of opinions out there," said Tony Beltran, executive director for the Lake County Health Department. "What we've focused on here is making sure the benefits are accessible to the residents of Lake County."
Officials with the Cook County Health System set a goal of enrolling 115,000 residents in CountyCare, an Illinois Medicaid program for adults, before the Oct. 1 debut of the Affordable Care Act marketplace, spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said. By late last week, about 103,000 eligible adults between the ages of 19 and 64 had already been enrolled in the program, which will provide a bridge for low-income residents to the new federal health care program, she said.
"A lot of folks in the county need health insurance, so we've had a major outreach program running since last winter," Kollias said. "We've already had great success helping a lot of uninsured residents get high quality health care."
Under the Lake County initiative "Enroll Lake County!," the county has partnered with the Alliance for Human Services and 27 other agencies and organizations for education, outreach and enrollment. More than 85 people have been trained as certified "in-person counselors" to help people navigate the new health insurance options.
Moraine Township — which covers most of Highland Park, Highwood and part of Deerfield — will have 21 in-person counselors. They each completed 40 hours of training plus a background screening.
The new law will help a wide variety of people in the Highland Park and Deerfield area, including low-income people with no health insurance, small business owners and people who may be pondering early retirement, said Anne Flanigan Bassi, supervisor for the Moraine Township.
"Major life decisions have been driven by access to health care," Bassi said. "This law will give people new options."
Not everyone's convinced it will be a win for all. Dean Klassman, a broker in the health insurance business for more than 30 years, said young and healthy people might pay more than they otherwise might in a given geographic area because of the community rating rules of the new law.
"That's the scary part," said Klassman, of Arlington Heights-based Klassman Financial Services.
Klassman, who has advised the Decker family on their health insurance options, also questioned what it would mean for small business owners. But he sees the positive, too.
"No preexisting condition clause is very good. That's awesome," Klassman said.
Under the new law, no longer will people with pre-existing conditions be denied access to health insurance or have to pay exorbitant rates.
That sounds good to Will Wilson, 59, a Highland Park man who was diagnosed with AIDS about 10 years ago. When Wilson learned of the Lake County initiative, he raised his hand to become one of the Moraine Township's volunteer in-person counselors.