Berkshire Campaign Aims To Enroll Thousands In Health Plans

Jan 15, 2014


Health care providers in western Massachusetts are offering their assistance and encouraging people to enroll in insurance plans under the federal Affordable Care Act, which has garnered negative since its rolling out on October 1.

With grants from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, local health providers are reaching out to first notify people that they may be eligible for a new plan and then to offer assistance in navigating the application process. Community Health Programs serves roughly 15,000 patients a year at five locations in central and southern Berkshire County.

“Our big challenge now is getting through the confusion, making sure that those that qualify for health insurance know they qualify and we can walk them the system if they can’t get through on their own,” said CEO Bryan Ayars.

Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals making less than $46,000 annually are eligible for some type of plan. The eligibility for a family of five is a yearly income of $110,000. Those levels are 300 percent above the federal poverty level. With Berkshire County’s poverty level at 14 percent, Ayars says nearly 11,000 individuals are now eligible for some type of health insurance that falls in line with ACA.

“MassHealth or Medicaid used to be seen as a program just for the poor,” he explained. “It’s now a program for anyone who wants to look at it.”

Ayars says a focus for CHP, Berkshire Health Systems and Ecu-Health Care in North Adams is reaching out to small employers.

“Almost 90 percent of the employers in Berkshire County have fewer than 20 employees,” Ayars said. “They don’t know what they qualify for, if they qualify, what the reporting might be.”

Ayars says most of the challenges in getting people enrolled come down to education.

“In the southern part of the county there’s more migrant work,” he said. “More individuals who aren’t from the country, but are here legally who might benefit from a plan. We need to get them enrolled as well. The Berkshires does not have a huge, diverse population, but we do have diversity. One of our challenges is communicating to these individuals and groups to make sure they know what they’re eligible for.”

Ayars adds many don’t know that they may qualify for a dental plan under ACA as well. Octavio Hernandez is an enrollment specialist at CHP. He says complications with the enrollment system are frustrating many and discouraging people from being proactive. He says his agency fields 80 phone calls a day and sends about 35 paper applications to the Massachusetts Health Connector a week. Hernandez says he hopes the system will soon work as smoothly as it did before the state transitioned to a new website to align with ACA.

“As counselors we are all going to have our own accounts so we can handle cases for others using our own account,” Hernandez said. “It’s something we used to have in our old system. That’s why it was easier.”

Behind a $63,000 grant from the state, CHP’s BerkshireAffordableCare campaign is using billboards as well as television and radio ads to enroll people before the March 31 open enrollment deadline. Director of communications Gina Salvato Shultis says the campaign is also focused on enrolling the so-called “young invincibles,” healthy people in their 20s and 30s who would keep health costs down for the others enrolled.

“We have a campaign at the local cinemas,” Salvato Shultis said. “So the slides you see before the movies come up. Trying to target that younger audience who might take out their phone right then and there and punch in the contact information.”