By Ameet Sachdev
Get Covered Illinois, amid a sharp reduction in federal funding, has only enough money this year to pay for about 150 counselors who help consumers buy health insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act.
That's down from about 400 enrollment specialists the organization funded last year, according to the Illinois Department of Insurance.
Get Covered Illinois said Friday that it will dole out about $5 million in federal grants to 10 community groups to hire the counselors, known in federal language as navigators. A year ago the organization spent about $25.8 million on the navigator program.
The cutback in the enrollment specialists concerns health care advocates because consumers have struggled to pick a health plan among a dizzying array of choices with many subtle differences. Navigators also help people find out whether they qualify for tax subsidies to help lower the cost of coverage.
Consumers can begin shopping for insurance on Healthcare.gov, the federal platform, on Nov. 1.
"People still don't get it," said Barbara Otto, CEO of Health & Disability Advocates in Chicago. "It's such a huge loss to not have all of this federal funding."
About 350,000 Illinois residents bought health plans through the federal online marketplace as of February. More than 600,000 residents have signed up for Medicaid under the health care law's expansion of the program.
The federal government awarded the state about $115 million in 2013 to promote the Affordable Care Act and help people understand new insurance options and usher them through the process of signing up. Get Covered Illinois used most of the money in the first two years of open enrollment and received $10 million for 2015. It has only about $20 million left for the third season.
In July, the organization eliminated most of its staff as operating money dwindled.
Other organizations in Illinois will support the state's consumer outreach efforts. The federal government awarded about $2.9 million to seven organizations, including the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, to hire navigators.
Statewide, there were about 900 federally funded navigators during the second open enrollment. Otto said she expects about half that number this year.
(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune