The Obama administration announced Thursday that community health centers around the country will get $150 million to help uninsured Americans sign up for health insurance coverage under the new health care law.
The money addresses concerns from Congress and advocacy groups that many consumers will have a hard time navigating the health coverage options available to them next year as a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance kicks in.
Last month, the administration made $54 million available to states and private groups so that they could hire new health insurance "navigators." The same concept is being applied to the nation's 1,200 community health centers, which serve about 21 million patients each year, many of them without health insurance.
Beginning in July, each center will get a minimum of $55,000, and will have to provide quarterly reports documenting how many people they enrolled for health coverage.
Beginning Oct. 1, consumers can enroll in coverage through health insurance marketplaces called "exchanges" established by the states or the federal government. Coverage under the private plans begins Jan. 1.
"This won't be easy," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged in a conference call with reporters. "Many of the Americans we're trying to reach have spent their whole lives locked out or priced out of the health insurance market."
Some lawmakers have said they're worried that the health insurance exchanges won't open on time, and when they do, will be confusing to consumers.
Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said that more than 60 percent of the patients who get care at community health centers are from racial or ethnic minority groups that make up a disproportionate share of the uninsured. She said the centers are a trusted presence in many neighborhoods.
"They work on the front lines of the system. They help people overcome cost and language barriers," Munoz said.