CHICAGO — With the program known as "Obamacare" only weeks away from its key launch date, hectic preparations are in motion in communities across the country to deal with one of its major practical challenges: hiring and training a small army of instant experts who can explain the intricacies of health insurance to people who've never had it.
More than 100 nonprofits and related organizations, which specialize in everything from running soup kitchens to organizing farm workers, have been recruited by the federal government to sign up "navigators" to help the 30 million uninsured people who can now gain coverage.
Many of the groups have little expertise in health insurance. And the timeline for training the workers is tight. According to the new health law, people can begin shopping among the new policies on Oct. 1. The enrollment period lasts six months. Coverage begins in January.
"I think there's a lot of concern about whether, with all these state requirements, they are going to be ready to go," said Katie Keith, a former research professor at Georgetown University, who has been tracking the heath care legislation. "You want people out there educating consumers."
Deploying the guides for the uninsured is one the first hurdles for the new health system as it transitions from an abstract political debate in Washington to a real-life process in communities. It is one of the steps government officials are concerned about as critics warn that the Affordable Care Act could become a "train wreck."
The guides will be sent to community events with laptops to help people sign up for insurance online. They will work at food banks, shelters, churches and free clinics where the uninsured are likely to be.
The short time available for training raises questions about how prepared the workers will be to answer people's questions about the different policies and government subsidies available. Community groups received the course materials for the 20-hour training only days ago. Many have just begun to post the openings on job boards.