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Local "Navigators" Get Out The Word On The Affordable Care Act

Beginning October 1, Florida residents who will be shopping for health insurance on the new online marketplace will get a chance to comparison shop for coverage.

Meanwhile, special federally funded "navigators" who’ve been tasked with trying to educate the state’s residents about their health insurance options are working to get the word out about the specifics of the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."

The law requires most Americans to have some form of health insurance by January 1, 2014, or pay a penalty.

Here in Florida, the state has refused to set up an online insurance marketplace for residents to shop for coverage, so it's being managed at the federal level.

There are lots of questions about how the Affordable Care Act will be implemented in Florida, particularly since the state legislature has refused to expand Medicaid for low-income residents, and following news  last week that county health departments will not allow navigators on-site to sign up the uninsured.

"There is a lot of excellent information available right now, about the benefits and tiers of plans available for consumers," says Nikole Helvey, vice president and head of the navigator program for the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida.

"You can start to get an idea of what these plans cost through the exchanges and what type of help is available through tax subsidies."

Florida has more than 4 million uninsured residents. About half that group is eligible for health insurance coverage through the online exchange.

Meanwhile, nearly one million Floridians will fall into the "doughnut hole" next month — not earning enough to qualify for tax credits available through the exchange, but earning too much to qualify for Medicaid due to the state's refusal to expand coverage.

Helvey says these challenges will not get in the navigators' way.

"This is going to be a coordinated effort across the state. We have partnerships established with Walgreens, YMCAs, libraries, We Care Jacksonville, Volunteers in Medicine, and more to reach consumers."

"It's not going to slow us down. We will work with our county health departments in whatever capacity they're able. We'll include them as stakeholders."

"Certainly we face a little bit of resistance here and there, but we as an organization pride ourselves on being objective. We're working with the law as it stands today, and there's a lot of effort needed to get this information out."

Helvey says one of the navigators' biggest tasks is to educate the public on the "myths and misinformation" about the health law.

"For example, there is no big federal database of everyone's personal information — there will simply be a hub that will connect to existing databases. Navigators have to pass fingerprinting and state background checks and be registered with the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. There are protections in place to protect consumers," she says.

Beginning October 1, companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida say they'll be offering plans in all 67 Florida counties. You can learn more and find insurance information online at

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.