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Providing Outreach and Enrollment Assistance: Lessons Learned from Community Health Centers in Massachusetts

Introduction

In 2006, major health care reform legislation was enacted in Massachusetts. In many ways a prototype for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Massachusetts law required nearly all state residents to obtain health insurance, and made insurance accessible and affordable by reforming the health insurance market and providing subsidies for coverage through expansions of Medicaid and CHIP and a new program for low-income adults who are not eligible for Medicaid, known as Commonwealth Care. The law also created the “Connector,” which, like the ACA’s health insurance Marketplaces, is designed to facilitate and simplify access to insurance for individuals, families, and small businesses. In addition, the law established a Health Safety Net (HSN) Fund that finances health care for residents who remain uninsured permanently or on an intermittent basis.

Understanding that outreach and enrollment assistance would be essential to the health reform law’s success, Massachusetts policymakers launched high-profile public education campaigns, but they also provided for person-to-person, hands-on assistance, especially in low-income communities with large numbers of uninsured residents, many of whom have no previous experience signing up for insurance subsidies or selecting and enrolling in a health plan. Community health centers – a critical source of comprehensive primary health care and many other services for medically underserved populations and communities in Massachusetts – have played a central role in this outreach and enrollment effort.

To help inform current outreach and enrollment efforts associated with the ACA’s coverage expansion, the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured asked researchers at The George Washington University to examine the enrollment assistance experience of Massachusetts health centers six years into that state’s health reform program.1 Because of their safety-net role, health centers are uniquely aware of and knowledgeable about the challenges and requirements of assisting uninsured individuals and communities disadvantaged by poverty, minority race/ethnicity, poor health status, language barriers, homelessness, and other factors. As states and communities nationwide gear up to provide outreach and enrollment assistance for the first time under the ACA, the experience of Massachusetts health centers offers valuable lessons to health centers nationally, and to other community-based efforts to reach and enroll millions of low-income uninsured Americans in health coverage.

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