Celia Berks, coordinating navigator, and Sue Andrews, a navigator and executive director of Greater Bennington Community Services Inc., at the Bennington
Celia Berks, coordinating navigator, and Sue Andrews, a navigator and executive director of Greater Bennington Community Services Inc., at the Bennington Free Clinic. (Mark E. Rondeau)

BENNINGTON -- The team of navigators at the Bennington Free Clinic are ready, willing and able to help people get affordable insurance coverage through Vermont Health Connect or the expansion of Medicaid.

Vermont Health Connect is the state's version of the federal Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. The Free Clinic, 601 Main St., has a team of 10 navigators ready to help people get insurance. The deadline to be insured this year through Vermont Health Connect is March 31. Those who are enrolled by March 15 will be insured by April 1.

"People who sign up in the last two weeks of March will not get coverage until the first of May," said Celia Berks, coordinating navigator. "If you want to get on board for the first of April, they must be enrolled by the 15th of March."

The next open enrollment period for Vermont Health Connect won't begin until Nov. 15.

"So we are really eager to reach as many people as we can for obvious reasons -- to get them on," said Sue Andrews, a navigator who is also the executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc., which includes the Free Clinic.

Other navigators in Bennington County can be reached through the Bennington Chamber of Commerce, the Blueprint Community Health Team at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and BROC Community Action.

"So there are other resources," Andrews said. "We just really want to encourage people to take advantage of this because it's amazingly affordable for many people, because so many people qualify for the subsidies."

Contact the navigators

Those wishing to contact the navigators to find out information or enroll, may call 802-447-3700. One does not have to be a patient of the clinic to call.

"And no question is too big or too small," Berks said. "It might take 48 hours to call back, but we will call back."

The navigators also can, after determining eligibility, help those eligible for Medicaid coverage, which was expanded as part of the Affordable Care Act. The deadlines above do not apply to enrolling into Medicaid coverage.

"The reality is, many of the people we're seeing right now, we're getting onto the expanded Medicaid, which is one of the reasons why I want to encourage people to sign up," Andrews said. "It's surprising the number of people who are being found eligible for that. And who would turn down free health insurance?"

Interviewed on Feb. 14, the women estimated about 30 families had signed up through Vermont Health Connect with premiums paid, 45 had signed up for Medicaid coverage, and there were 25 or 30 open applications.

"There's another 30 or so who've we really done extensive counseling, maybe up to two hours of counseling, but for some reason or other they decided to go away after that and sign themselves up," Berks said. "So we can't take credit for them, but hours and hours of work. So if you include all the people that we've had in, where we've done counseling or signed them up, we're up to about 140 or maybe even now 150 families that we've connected with."

Andrews said this total is much less than they had planned to do at the beginning.

"I thought we could do between 400 and 500 enrollments and it's been much, much more time intensive than we had ever anticipated," she said, noting that Berks spends much time following through with the state on problems that occur during the enrollment process and meeting with a family more than once to iron out details.

As has been widely reported, Vermont Health Connect had many difficulties during the implementation process, and the navigators at the Free Clinic wrestled with them first-hand and at length. "It was a very, very bumpy rollout," Andrews said.

The Free Clinic navigators have planned to have a presence at the State Office Building to make appointments with people to come to the clinic to enroll.

"We're going to have a presence down there from time to time as our navigators are available to be there to answer questions and to try to catch people who might not be insured and invite them to make an appointment with us," Andrews said. "Because ... we're still seeing people coming into the clinic who don't know this is going on."

The enrollment process is secure and confidential and information taken from individuals and families is destroyed when the process is complete, the women said.

The navigators at the Free Clinic are all volunteers, nine women and one man. "I would like to put in something about our navigators," Berks said. "They are the most wonderful group of people that you will ever put in one room together. Just a really, really caring group of people. "

Andrews noted that the navigators have had to acquire a vast store knowledge in a relatively short period of time to help people, and they have given out a great amount of information. "It's been a challenge to bring ourselves and our countrymen up to speed about what all this means. I think we're all just getting our feet wet on it," she said.

Andrews said the question of whether it's fair that the volunteer navigators ended up having to spend such an unexpectedly large of amount of time and effort on the enrollment process has been discussed among the group. However, volunteer effort has been what Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services has been about since the beginning.

In Montpelier recently for a legislative breakfast, Andrews said she spoke with colleagues from elsewhere in the state involved with enrolling people in Vermont Health Connect and Medicaid.

"Most of them took their money and they funded a small part-time position," she said. "Well, in actuality, our small clinic, having 10 navigators, has much more flexibility and ability to really meet with people and walk the walk with them."

Contact Mark Rondeau at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. On Twitter: @banner_religion