ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis City Department of Health kicked off the first of a series of informational healthcare sessions today.
The sessions will last until December and are designed for any residents with or without healthcare to learn more about their options in a process that can be “complicated,” as Pamela Walker, St. Louis Director of Public Health, says.
She adds that about 50,000 St. Louis city citizens are uninsured and uninsured citizens in the city and St. Louis County combined is about 170,000. Fifty percent of those uninsured in the city, she says, qualify for Medicaid. The other 50 percent will now qualify for an exchange.
Volunteers through the department are counselors, not navigators, and assist people through the online process. These counselors help people set up email accounts, plugging in personal information and other information that can help people who are not entirely computer literate. Walker says the counselors do not help people pick plans however.
“You can be there to answer questions like, ‘What’s a security question? What does that mean?’ Because some people are just really unfamiliar with computers,” Walker says.
About 18 people came in for help before 5 p.m. today, according to Pat Curtis, a public health nurse and emergency who volunteered to be a counselor. The youngest person who came in was going to turn 26 (the age a person goes off his or her parent’s plan) and a woman asked questions for her 94-year-old father.
The basic knowledge, Walker says, people need to know are:
- Learning about health insurance is free. If approached by someone charging for advice, do not take it. It’s most likely a scam. If you pay for information, go to a certified health insurance broker. The best websites for information are covermissouri.org and healthcare.gov.
- There are about 20 options for St. Louis city residents through Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and Coventry. Build a plan that fits your budget.
- Analyze your health care options, what you want covered, income, out of pocket costs and money spent on the doctor versus a premium in order to understand what is affordable.
“It’s not a yes or no answer for them,” Walker says. “There are different strategies based on what they’re budget is and what they’re capable of spending.”
Walker referenced news outlets in California reporting 16,000 households who’ve already signed up. The Sacramento Bee reported wait times for a five-day period was about 15 minutes. The process in Missouri won’t be as smooth, Walker says, because Missouri did not opt for a state exchange.
“I’ve read that where there are state exchanges are working really well. But because our legislators chose not to try, we’re dealing with a system that tried to include 26 states with 26 different plans and 26 different Medicaid systems even. It’s going to have glitches,” Walker says. “People can blame the federal government but when your state decides it’s not even going to try, people are going to suffer and that’s what we’re dealing with.”
What’s most important to Walker though is that those in need, like people with pre-existing conditions and young people, will have access that they didn’t before.
“I think the main thing is this is the first time people in St. Louis really have an opportunity to be off charity care and have insurance like everybody else, have the same choices as everybody else has for providers and quality care instead of figuring out whether they’re going to eat or have health care,” Walker says.
Brittany Ruess was a reporter for The Missouri Times and the SEMO Times, and a graduate of Webster University.