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During Open Enrollment, Libraries Connect Community to Healthcare Options

Rebecca Smith
KBIA/Side Effects Public Media

With just a little over a month left in the third open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, some people may need a little additional help getting insurance through the ACA.

Health insurance can be a confusing topic, with its array of terminology and choices to puzzle through, from premiums and co-pays, to deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

A national survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that more than 70 percent of people surveyed after the last open enrollment period said they wanted one-on-one assistance enrolling in insurance coverage.

And people can find the help they seek in an unexpected place: their public library. While libraries are better known for books, story time and due dates – since the launch of the ACA, many libraries across the United States have embraced a new role as a go-to community resource for information on health insurance.

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
Carrie Cline is the director of the Neosho/Newton County Library.

Carrie Cline is the new director at the Neosho/Newton County library in Southwest Missouri. She’s worked at libraries throughout Southwest Missouri for nearly two decades. Though her library is small, she says helping people find health insurance coverage is a logical extension of their mission in their community of 56,000 residents. 

“I can’t imagine a better place [to get help] than the library because we reach so many different people that it's not based on your religion, your economics, it’s just based on the fact that we're here to help you,” Cline said.

Nearly 60 percent of libraries in the US are now offering programs designed to help their patrons identify health insurance resources according to the 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey. Some libraries are even training their own staff to be ACA navigators or bringing in volunteers to assist people with different languages and cultures.

Though smaller, rural libraries often do not have the resources to support this level of help, Cline says they can “at least offer a space where trainers can come in, meet with clients, meet with the general public and help them get enrolled,” Cline said.

Throughout open enrollment, Cline's library hosts certified application counselors from a local community health organization called Freeman Health System.

These counselors are trained in the up-to-date information on the ACA and actually sit with the individuals, guiding them through the enrollment process, step by step.

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
Camille Midcap is the Lead Certified Application Counselor for Freeman Health System.

Camille Midcap, the lead certified application counselor, said the library acts a bridge between people needing coverage and Freeman Health System’s enrollment services.  “We couldn’t reach the more vulnerable populations, the hard to reach populations without them,” she says. “We just couldn’t do it.”

Help like this can be especially valuable for those who may have low health care literacy such as low-income individuals, rural populations and non-English speakers. For all of these people, the library is usually a known community resource.

“Those in that community are very familiar and I think feel comfortable to come to the library,” Midcap said. “So we've stationed there, in all those communities for the past couple years and it has always been successful.”

Francisca Goldsmith, a librarian and author of a book on the ACA published by the American Library Association this year, said that libraries are known as a judgement-free zone because “public libraries are open to all and have information for all.”

The idea behind her book, “Libraries and the Affordable Care Act: Helping the Community Understand Health-Care Options,” is to assist librarians in understanding the ACA and help them identify the health insurance needs of their community. And she says, just as libraries are a go-to destination for tax preparation assistance in the spring, they’re starting to be known as "community connectors" to open enrollment help.

“I think a lot of library staff would actually be surprised at how just the fact that the federal government and many state governments have advertised that `the information is available at your library,” Goldsmith said. “People are hearing that message over and over.”

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
The Neosho/Newton County Library offers space to certified application counselors so they can assist people wishing to enroll in the ACA.

Librarian Carrie Cline said the relationship with Freeman Health System already feels natural for the Neosho-Newton library, and she doesn’t intend for the library’s commitment to the community won’t stop with the ACA.

“That’s what we're here for - is to help you, no matter what the subject,” Cline said. “We want to be the ones to help you find what you're after or at least get you started in the right direction or guide you to someone who knows more than we do, who could actually help you.”

Rebecca Smith is a reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth desk and Side Effects Public Media. She was born and raised in Rolla, Missouri, and graduated with degrees in Journalism and Chemistry from Truman State University in May 2014. Rebecca comes to KBIA from St. Louis Public Radio, where she worked as the news intern and covered religion, neighborhood growth and the continued unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Aside from her work, she is partial to long runs, good books and nerdy television shows.