AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly a dozen of Maine's largest communities are more than 15 miles from the nearest navigator or counselor who can help residents sign up for coverage on the health insurance marketplace, according to an analysis presented to lawmakers Monday.
Of the 77 Maine towns where most people work and shop and where most hospitals and colleges are located, 11 don't have navigators and certified application counselors within 15 miles, the Maine Health Access Foundation found. Those assisters walk people through the online application for the marketplace that's a key part of President Barack Obama's health care law and answer questions about the plans being offered in Maine.
Health care groups say that people who live in these areas have other resources, like statewide help lines, and are not on their own when it comes to signing up for coverage. But the lack of assisters available in some areas across the large, rural state is raising concerns that not everyone who needs help is getting reached.
"We have lots of people that aren't super-familiar with using the Internet and using computers and are just not comfortable with it, and so we need to have a way to reach out to those people and I think with so few navigators that's very challenging," said Democratic Rep. Sharon Treat of Hallowell, co-chair of the panel of lawmakers and health care experts that's overseeing the rollout of the health care overhaul in Maine.
More than 100 navigators are working in Maine and the state's roughly 20 community health centers also have trained, certified counselors who can also help with applications. The number of assisters in Maine continues to grow every week, said Wendy Wolf, president and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation.
"For as large a state as Maine is with as rural a population density, I actually have to say I feel pretty darn good about the level of coverage, particularly for some small rural areas," Wolf said.
But the analysis points to areas where navigators can focus their attention, she said, like Ashland, Mount Desert and Boothbay Harbor where the nearest assisters are several miles away. In Mount Desert, people have to drive 18 miles to Ellsworth to see the nearest navigator and nearly 40 miles for other assisters, according to the analysis.
But even where there is assistance nearby, people may be having trouble getting help with their applications, Treat said. Some navigators say they're already booked with appointments through the first of the year, she said.
The legislative panel, which held its last meeting of the year Monday, is urging Republican Gov. Paul LePage's administration to apply for federal grants that can be used for more outreach and advertising. Those grants can't be used to hire more navigators but can pay for things like educational meetings, which can help in underserved areas, Treat said.
Mitchell Stein, policy director for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said that while Maine would benefit from more navigators, the state is doing a great job of targeting the people who need help with the resources that it currently has.
"I wouldn't want to give the impression that people in Maine are really stuck. For the most part, people who need assistance are able to access that assistance," he said.
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