Groups taking new approaches to encourage more Nebraskans to sign up for health insurance

With enrollment now open for the federally run health insurance marketplace, Nebraska community groups are taking new approaches to reach out to those who lack coverage.

Community groups have handed out flyers at farm and craft shows, staffed booths at Nebraska county fairs and distributed bookmarks at libraries and coffee shops. A Community Action group in Lincoln is once again participating in a televised "phone-a-thon" to catch the public's attention. Private insurers are using online videos and mailings.

The renewed publicity is part of a push to attract people who missed the first nationwide enrollment period and are still uninsured, said Carrie Eurek, a Kearney-based health insurance navigator for Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska. The groups have also focused on traditional newspaper and radio ads, posters, flyers and word of mouth.

"We're trying to think of creative ways to reach out to people, in addition to regular media," said Eurek, whose job includes walking people through the process of getting signed up. "It's a little bit more of a laid-back approach, maybe a little less formal."

Eurek said her office aims to make contact with 500 people by Dec. 15, the deadline to receive coverage by Jan. 1. The full enrollment period continues through Feb. 15. Eurek said the first week of enrollment has stayed busy, and she expects foot traffic to remain steady until the deadline.

Nearly 43,000 Nebraskans signed up for health insurance during the first nationwide enrollment period, which ran from last Oct. 1 through March 31. More than 40 percent enrolled during a last-minute surge in March, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Nebraska Department of Insurance has held sessions in Gering, Fremont, Omaha and O'Neill to discuss the open enrollment, said Robert Bell, legal counsel of the department.

Bell said the department has focused on telling people what they need to do to contact an agent, brokers, and the community groups that are helping with the effort. The four insurers in Nebraska are Assurant Health, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, CoOpportunity Health and Coventry Health Care of Nebraska.

Insurers have also worked to reach consumers directly. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska has used online videos and mailings to its current members, said Matt Leonard, the company's manager of consumer sales.

"We were under the impression that it was going to be busy, and it has been," Leonard said. "We're seeing that there's still a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace. People want someone to hold their hand, because health insurance can be confusing."

In Lincoln, the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties joined forces with the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce to reach out to employers, said Vi See, the group's executive director.

In September, the state insurance department released a table of 2015 "rate scenarios" that showed average monthly premiums increasing by as much as 20 percent. The rates varied by plan, family situation and location in the state. Some were projected to decrease in cost. Advocates for the federal health care law note that individuals whose plan costs rise could also see a larger tax credit, if their incomes remained the same.

Amber Hansen, Community Action of Nebraska's executive director, said local community action offices spent much of the first enrollment period struggling with technical problems with the federal website. This year, she said, they hope to spend more energy making contact with uninsured people and reminding those who got coverage to re-enroll.

"I'm looking forwarding to everyone using the knowledge that we've gained in the last year," Hansen said.