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HHS Will Send $150 Million to Health Centers to Enroll Uninsured

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

May 9, 2013 -- Community health centers will get $150 million to enroll the uninsured under the health law, part of what Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently called a "robust" plan to educate Americans on how they can get health benefits and to help them sign up.

Money for the effort will come from community health center funding, not from the health law's Prevention and Public Health Fund. The administration recently took money from that fund to promote a federal insurance exchange, provoking protests by public health lobbyists.

Federal officials are scrounging for money to educate millions of hard-to-reach uninsured Americans about coverage options under the overhaul. That prompted skeptical questioning during a call with reporters about the use of community health center funding for the outreach effort.

Officials pointed out that the health law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) provided $11 billion over five years in mandatory funding for community health centers. The money was intended for construction, operations, expanded services, and outreach workers, said Mary Wakefield, head of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

"We've had outreach workers that have been assisting individuals to enroll in insurance probably for decades," she added. "It is a function that they carry out already and that we have historically helped to support."

Wakefield was asked when officials decided to devote a portion of the mandatory health center funding to the outreach effort.

"We've been working on this initiative for a period of time," she said. "I couldn't tell you the exact date, but this is something that we've been working on for a period of time." The centers treat many uninsured patients and already help to enroll those who qualify for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

The money will specifically go to provide in-person enrollment assistance. "Health centers will be able to hire new staff, train existing staff, and conduct community outreach events and other educational activities," an HHS news release said.

Only existing grantees are eligible for the funds. About 1,200 health centers operate nearly 9,000 service delivery sites nationwide and serve approximately 21 million patients each year, HHS said in a news release. The centers typically are located in rural areas and in inner city neighborhoods.

Sebelius sought to portray the enrollment challenge in positive terms.

"The next several months present an incredible opportunity to educate and connect millions of uninsured Americans with the security of quality, affordable health coverage, in some cases for the first time," she said.

"Health centers are especially well equipped to promote enrollment in neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most" from new insurance exchanges opening to offer coverage, the secretary added. "They can do that by reaching out to their patients and the neighbors in the area."

Sixty percent of health center patients are people of color, officials said, and come from communities with disproportionately large uninsured populations.

The announcement "builds on the extensive outreach efforts that we have planned for the coming months," Sebelius said. "This summer administration officials and I will be traveling around the country to spread the word about enrollment. And we've great allies and partners in the states and private and non profit sectors who will also be stepping up to help educate people and get them signed up," she said.

But Sebelius didn't elaborate on those coming efforts, and there's lots of doubt that resources for the job will match its size. "This won't be easy," Sebelius said. But connecting the uninsured with coverage "will have huge health benefits for the American people. And we have a very robust plan to get it done."

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