By Elana Gordon
What can’t librarians do? Many are now becoming health insurance guides.
The buzz at the American Library Association's winter meeting recently wasn't just about the annual awards (a.k.a. the book award "super bowl"); the Affordable Care Act was also on the agenda. Libraries across the country have been trying to meet a growing demand for health insurance information.
At the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch, library coordinator Nani Manion has started running twice-weekly enrollment clinics in the technology lab. Manion is one of 33 librarians in the Philly system who have undergone a five-hour training session to become certified application counselors.
On a recent morning, Alfred Di Martini stopped in after having problems going through the government website, healthcare.gov, on his own. “I came in here and saw the flyer, and the person at the front desk told me about it,” Di Martini says. He sits down in front of a computer, with a librarian on hand to assist, and he searches for options for his wife as well as the caregiver of his 95-year-old mother, who are both uninsured.
Another man, uninsured and in need of physical therapy for a past injury, comes in to browse insurance options.
At least through March, 12 library locations in Philadelphia are taking individual sign-up appointments or hosting these walk-in sessions. The library cites data estimating that 210,000 Philadelphia residents lack health insurance.
“It started off slow post-holiday and because of the weather,” says Manion. But the pace has picked up; one day last week, six people showed up for help. That might not seem like a lot, but the process for some individuals took nearly two hours. "I could have used more assistance,” she says.
The added service also means some trade-offs. While Manion conducts sessions, another computer class is on hold.
Last summer, the Free Library’s director, Siobhan Reardon, issued a system-wide request for librarians who were interested the training.
“Our role here in library land has been changing rapid fire,” says Reardon, who was surprised to learn from a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study that more than one-third of people are coming to the Philly library for health information, spurring this latest effort. “The trail into getting insurance is not a neatly designed trail, and so there’s nothing better than a librarian to help navigate.”
Libraries As Key Sources For Health Information
Libraries have always been more than book lenders, providing services that include early childhood education, employment assistance and computer literacy skills. The economic downturn heightened the need for those services, and health information has long been in demand.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) estimates 28 million people sought health information from libraries in one year.
“So we know people are going to the library and we want to make sure librarians know about community resources and web sites that they need to give them accurate information,” says Mamie Bittner, director of government affairs for IMLS, who was in Philadelphia for the conference.
As the Newbery and Caldecott awards excitement was going on, Bittner and a handful of other librarians from Texas to Idaho to Northeast Pennsylvania were brainstorming about ways to help their patrons navigate the process of signing up for health coverage.
Last summer, IMLS issued a $286,104 grant to craft webinars geared toward librarians. More than 1,000 have participated since that launched, Bittner said.
“There are pressures on libraries. They are stressed in many ways, but meeting the high priority information needs of their community, that is their job," she says, noting that libraries were active in assisting seniors with the launch of Medicare Part D, for example.
'We Saw An Influx'
Bittner says libraries “are assuming a variety of roles” as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. Not all are going as far as the Free Library in Philadelphia. “Other staff are just being ready, so that they know where the websites are and can help people find them,” Bittner says.
In Delaware, state librarian Annie Norman, says they’ve been thirsty for useful, accurate information so they can best assist patrons.
“We saw such an influx of people needing job assistance, that when this big health care initiative was coming in, we thought ‘They’re going to be coming in! 35,000 people could be on our doorstep with questions,’ so we wanted to be prepared to help them,” Norman says.
The system first turned to the state, which is running the health care marketplace in partnership with the federal government. Libraries in Delaware have since hosted more than three dozen public events.
Navigators, or federally certified application assistors, have used library space to meet with people and help them enroll. The libraries have computers with solid, protected internet connections, which are helpful for people who don’t have internet access elsewhere.
Norman says they haven't seen the influx of people they had initially expected, but they're also tracking the questions -- 300 so far -- people have, so they can better respond to insurance questions in the future.
“We’re laying the foundation for years to come,” says Cathay Keough, coordinator of reference services for Delaware’s Division of Libraries.
Approaches also vary from library to library and community to community. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the library has a history of being active in responding to community events. Superstorm Sandy is one example.
“We were very prepared to help the community with stuff like that because they see us as a place to help with that information,” says Julie Senack, head of information and community education services at the Atlantic City Free Public Library. The library became a FEMA base, with people applying for assistance inside. Now, she says the library is applying those lessons to the Affordable Care Act rollout.
“Like with FEMA, the first thing we did with the Affordable Care Act was learn,” says Senack. “We don’t have to understand everything, we just need to understand how to get correct and accurate information and reach out to people who do know, and have them in our orbit.”