Health centres get $150 million to help the uninsured navigate new coverage options

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration announced Thursday that community health centres around the country will get $150 million to help uninsured Americans sign up for health insurance coverage under the new health care law.

The money addresses concerns from Congress and advocacy groups that many consumers will have a hard time navigating the health coverage options available to them next year as a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance kicks in.

Last month, the administration made $54 million available to states and private groups so that they could hire new health insurance "navigators." The same concept is being applied to the nation's 1,200 community health centres, which serve about 21 million patients each year, many of them without health insurance.

Beginning in July, each centre will get a minimum of $55,000, and will have to provide quarterly reports documenting how many people they enrolled for health coverage.

Beginning Oct. 1, consumers can enrol in coverage through health insurance marketplaces called "exchanges" established by the states or the federal government. Coverage under the private plans begins Jan. 1.

"This won't be easy," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged in a conference call with reporters. "Many of the Americans we're trying to reach have spent their whole lives locked out or priced out of the health insurance market."

Some lawmakers have said they're worried that the health insurance exchanges won't open on time, and when they do, will be confusing to consumers.

Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said that more than 60 per cent of the patients who get care at community health centres are from racial or ethnic minority groups that make up a disproportionate share of the uninsured. She said the centres are a trusted presence in many neighbourhoods.

"They work on the front lines of the system. They help people overcome cost and language barriers," Munoz said.