Health Overhaul Signups

The website is where people sign up for health insurance coverage on the federal exchange under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Rates for 2019 are dropping an average 6.4 percent.

Louisiana, like most of the country, has entered the homestretch of the health insurance open enrollment period. With the Dec. 15 deadline just around the corner, those working to get Louisianians covered are racing to assist the 143,577 residents who bought insurance through the health insurance exchange last year, as well as those new to the marketplace. Unfortunately that job was made more difficult this year, with a 90 percent cut in outreach spending and the enrollment period cut in half.

In Louisiana, funding for navigators — people trained to help consumers shop for and purchase health insurance — was cut by 80 percent, dropping from $1.5 million to just $300,000. Nonprofit organizations across the state are shifting funds and reallocating grant money to retain as many navigators as they can. Still, many others have been laid off due to inadequate funding. To compensate, a number of new players are entering the field, including medical students from the Tulane University School of Medicine, such as ourselves.

When we heard about the cuts, we looked for ways we could help. In partnership with the New Orleans-based nonprofit association 504HealthNet, we were trained as certified application counselors and deployed to various community events to assist consumers in much the same way that navigators do. Since open enrollment began, we have been tabling at events and in community spaces — from Walmart to the Healing Center — meeting with New Orleanians, helping them navigate a completely separate (and equally important) aspect of the health care system than what we learn in our classes.

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We’ve also worked hard to mitigate the cuts to outreach funding. Medical students have volunteered to canvas door to door, armed with informational pamphlets and answers to questions those in the community may have about the enrollment process. We’ve held lunch talks to educate ourselves and raise awareness about open enrollment, and we’ve raised money to support 504HealthNet in their enrollment efforts.

These efforts have yielded some success. While specific, state-level data won’t be available until December, we know that about 25,500 Louisianians have signed up for coverage so far. This is encouraging; however, it is still sobering to consider the alternative reality, one in which Louisiana’s navigators and nonprofits are adequately supported by the federal government. One in which we could focus on studying for exams instead of worrying about future patients — not to mention our own family and friends — who may not have access to lifesaving, or even preventive care.

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Until Dec. 15, many people across the state will be working to enroll every resident in need of coverage. In between clinic shifts and studying for exams, the students of the Tulane School of Medicine will be doing the same.

Christine Petrin

medical student, Tulane University

New Orleans

Frances Gill

medical student, Tulane University

New Orleans