ELIZABETH A. CONKEY
BENNINGTON -- Local volunteers from the Bennington Free Clinic have teamed up to assist Bennington County residents to navigate the Vermont Health Connect healthcare changes to begin Jan. 1, 2014.
Vermonters who are self-employed, business owners who employ 50 employees or less, and those otherwise uninsured, save those already covered under Medicaid, will be required to enroll in a health insurance plan before the end of the year, or run the risk of being fined.
The Bennington Free Clinic was recently awarded a state "navigating grant," which means it is responsible for providing their immediate community with free assistance in navigating healthcare options and enrolling Bennington County residents in a Vermont Health Connect plan conducive to their budgets.
Bennington Free Clinic Executive Director Sue Andrews explained that the group of 10 navigators is made up solely of volunteers, all of whom have completed a 16-hour-long Vermont Health Connect training program.
Andrews is happy to continue to follow a volunteer model within the "navigating" program, a model by which the Bennington Free Clinic has been functioning since its inception.
"Bennington County is about neighbors helping neighbors," Andrews said.
"These volunteers are working hard to connect with people in their own communities." Convincing those who are uninsured to purchase health insurance is no easy task, according to Andrews.
"Americans today have many expenses," she said. "For many, finding a way to afford the basics: food, shelter, utilities, can be challenging and they are unable to find room in their budgets for healthcare." Andrews added that prior to this time, Americans haven’t been required to purchase health insurance.
"The idea behind this new act is that we all share the risk and that we begin to care more about taking care of ourselves as a nation," she said.
The clinic’s navigators, with guidance from Head Navigator Celia Berks, have been attending community events in Bennington County and connecting with willing parties, explaining the varying plans and handing out informational literature.
"We were at Garlic Fest and the car show," Berks said. "Both were a great opportunity to interact with the public and simply ask if they’ve heard of Vermont Health Connect." In the coming months, the navigators plan to make themselves accessible at farmers’ markets, faith communities and area schools.
Of the latter, Andrews said, "Parent-teacher conference nights will be a great way to connect with young families."
Andrews explained that patients who frequent the clinic have gradually been introduced to Vermont Health Connect plans and what is known as a subsidy calculator, a tool on the Vermont Health Connect website which calculates an estimated premium cost, based on an individual’s gross monthly income and the number of people in their household.
According to Berks, individuals may find the numbers frightening, or, in most cases, quite surprising, in a good way.
Andrews noted that the plethora of healthcare choices ensures a plan for every budget and lifestyle. She and Berks welcome questions from prospective parties, and understand that the imminent changes can be daunting and overwhelming to process.
"Consumers will have a multiplicity of choices to make before the plan goes into effect at the beginning of the year," Andrews said. "Many people don’t have access to healthcare because they don’t have insurance. By helping Bennington County residents have better access, we are essentially leveling the playing field."
Effective Oct. 1, the healthcare "marketplace" will open and uninsured Vermonters will be able to begin enrolling in their desired plan.
According to Andrews, plans differ in the extent of coverage provided, costs of premiums and co-pay amounts and are organized by way of a metal system: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and two high deductible plans within the Silver and Bronze levels.
Andrews noted that younger individuals who are in good health would most likely find the Bronze level to work in their favor, as it has a low premium cost per month.
For those who require frequent doctor visits or who may take a number of medications, Andrews said a plan with a more expensive premium might be the best choice, resulting in lower co-pays at each visit.
Andrews went on to explain that if Vermonters do not enroll in a healthcare plan before the first of the year, they will be taxed the following year.
"The fine starts out fairly permissively, but in subsequent years it will go up," said Andrews.
Berks noted that those individuals who miss the open enrollment period will be unable to enroll until October of next year.
"It’s really incumbent on people to look into this and do what they need to do before the end of the year, lest they be fined," she said.
Andrews concurred, adding that she believes everyone must participate in this new healthcare system in order for it to be successful.
"I feel strongly that we as citizens must bring what we can to the table," she said. "Gone are the days that we can carry those who opt out of health insurance."
Contact Vermont Health Connect navigators at the Bennington Free Clinic by calling 802-447-3700. For more information about the Bennington Free Clinic and the services offered, visit www.benningtonfreeclinic.org.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.