BROOKSVILLE - For the first time ever, Hernando Countians this week started shopping for health care alternatives in the marketplace.
For months, there has been talk of health care exchanges, all part of the Affordable Care Act. Opinions are flying on both sides of the political spectrum, with naysayers and supporters vehement in either their opposition or support of President Barack Obama's initiative.
Ann-Gayl Ellis, public information officer for the Hernando County Health Department, said the Community Health Center is ready to help people navigate through the options. Staffers are not there to opine on the merits of the plan.
"We can't give our opinion on what is best for the person," Ellis said. "All we can do is guide them through the system and help them move through the question that they may not understand."
The federal government had allocated more than $2.5 million to educate and enroll uninsured individuals and families in new health coverage options through the Affordable Care Act.
The community health center received $100,000 in grant money from the Health Care Resource Services Administration.
Hernando County used the money to hire two temporary certified counselors who will work 32 hours per week to help people understand the benefits available to them, eligibility requirements and options in their State Health Insurance Marketplaces.
So far, staff has not been inundated with requests, Ellis said.
"Surprisingly enough, we only had three people in Brooksville and two people in Spring Hill either call or come in," Ellis said Wednesday afternoon.
People are likely doing much of their own homework, she said.
"We don't have anything magic here that's anything different than what people are doing on their home computers," Ellis said.
But Ellis said her staffers are there for anyone who may experience problems, and they can call her office for an appointment with a counselor. She stressed that staffers will host upcoming meetings in the community, including libraries and civic organizations.
People have until the end of December to sign up and enroll in a plan, so it's not as if there is any huge rush, Ellis said. She expects to see more people as the weeks go on.
Coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace begins as early as Jan. 1, 2014, for people enrolling by Dec. 15.
"(This week) marks the start of an intense six-month long open enrollment and public education campaign for the Marketplace," said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner. "We want consumers to know that they can find and compare options, check if they qualify for lower costs, and get covered."
For more information, call the Community Health Center at (352) 540-6842.