Tina Minster carries her MiFi and laptop with her everywhere she goes so she can answer questions about health insurance whenever they come up. In the summer, she wanders the beaches and signs up dipnetters for health insurance.
“I will just wander around, because it’s a whole new population because they’re there for subsistence,” Minster said.
“They’re there because they need to eat in the wintertime, and if they need to eat in the wintertime, they probably are going to need insurance in the wintertime.”
Minster, a health navigator at Peninsula Community Health Services, handles the outreach and enrollment for health insurance.
When people come to her, confused about health insurance, she helps explain what the best options are.
It isn’t always easy for her. When she was initially offered the job, Minster said she turned it down. Even after accepting the job, she said it has been a balancing act of trying to learn as much as possible about the new health care law and keeping up with the changes.
“When this started three years ago, it was every day we were on webinars, learning,” Minster said.
“I remember hosting one night at the Lutheran church where there were 20 people there, and everything that I had planned for them that morning I had to change that night because President Obama made a change.”
Most of the complaints she gets are still about having to enroll in the first place, she said. Some people will go all the way through the process only to back out because the cost of the insurance may exceed the cost of paying the doctor in cash, she said.
Those tend to be young people, which could present a problem in the model of the Affordable Care Act — insurance only gets cheaper when everyone uses it because the payment pool is larger and some pay for insurance without using it often.
Another challenge in Alaska is the generally rising cost of insurance. Alaska has some of the most expensive health care in the country and some of the highest insurance premiums. Sometimes the insurance premiums can be lower, but the copays for individual doctor’s visits and generic drugs can add up.
When some are facing either paying several hundred dollars in insurance every month or facing a steep tax penalty for not having insurance, they can land in a quandary. That’s why Minster sits in tax accountants’ offices during tax season, if they’ll let her, she said.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to have to pay that penalty, I need to get health insurance,’” Minster said. “And I’ll just raise my hand and say, ‘I can help you.’”
There are three navigators at Peninsula Community Health Services, but Minster said she does most of the outreach. She makes appointments at her office at the clinic but will travel to individual homes, city hall, private offices and public libraries. Friday afternoon found her set up in the community room of the Soldotna Public Library.
Some events draw one person in a few hours, she said, but on Friday, she saw 13 people in two hours, or nearly one every 10 minutes.
The enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, which opened Nov. 1, runs until Jan. 31 of next year, and is a busy time for health insurance navigators. Minster said she will be walking many people through the basics of health insurance because some have never been insured before — terms like deductible and premium can be confusing.
“I’m barely in my office,” Minster said. “I’ll make appointments there, but otherwise, I’m there like once a week. When I’m not there, the requests will get forwarded to the other two navigators.”
Health insurance in Alaska is a narrower offering than in many other states as only two private insurance companies, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield and Moda Health, offer insurance plans through the state health care exchange. With the expansion of Medicaid, more people statewide qualify, but Minster said some may not even know that Medicaid has expanded, let alone whether they qualify.
Those with questions can call Peninsula Community Health Services to make an appointment or stop in to get their questions answered. There is some information available through the federal health care website Healthcare.gov, but locally, Minster said PCHS may be one of the best resources.
Annette Campbell, who stopped in at the library Friday, said she is currently surveying her options for health insurance. After recently switching jobs, she said she is trying to determine what the best insurance option is.
“I don’t know all the details … versus what my previous employer’s was,” Campbell said. “I’m trying to get all that taken care of now so I don’t have to worry about it.”
Minster said the job can be frustrating, but she does it for the sake of helping people. With a background in behavioral health and as a single parent, she said she can relate to the struggles of many of her clients and can help them through their frustration.
“I have a passion for the people and a passion for people’s being healthy,” Minster said.
“I can empathize with so many different people now. “
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.