Melissa O’Neill, a healthcare navigator with the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation, is in the home stretch of another open-enrollment period, her third in the three years since the health-insurance marketplace opened in 2013.
“I still get a kick out of it,” she said about signing people up for insurance.
Since the marketplace opened, 354,962 Illinoisans have signed up for health care since 2013 as of Jan. 16.
The Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation, or SIHF, accounted for 12,200 of them, 875 of whom were helped by O’Neill.
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It takes a certain person to be a navigator, said James Spinner, SIHF’s project director. Spinner, who recruited and staffed SIHF’s pool of navigators, said he looked for people who would do well in the communities they work in. He chose O’Neill for Belleville.
O’Neill said it was her family that influenced her to take up a career in healthcare. Three of her aunts are nurses. So are two of her sisters, and a few cousins, too.
She started as a certified nurse’s assistant at Memorial Hospital and later worked as a hospital secretary filling medical orders until 2013.
It was at Memorial that she said she saw patients worrying about being able to pay their medical bills, so when the possibility of working more directly with people again opened, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Terrifying” was how O’Neill described her first enrollment.
Her training had been full of information about the Affordable Care Act, she said, but navigators had learned little about what signing people up would look like. Then, when HealthCare.gov was unveiled, it worked poorly, and later it had persistent computer problems.
Many people didn’t know how to handle the roll-out, Spinner said. People who had healthcare signed up when they didn’t need it. Others who did sometimes missed their appointments with navigators.
Despite these early setbacks, O’Neill said she can’t see herself doing anything else.
O’Neill helped her first client enroll in Illinois’ expanded Medicaid program, which accounts for around 85 to 90 percent of her sign ups, she said. Most are during the nine months regular health-insurance marketplace enrollment is closed.
Now at the end of the third enrollment period, O’Neill said it’s encouraging to see people renew their insurance plans. It means she’s building relationships, she said.
A year ago, she was working at the Belleville Family Health Center across the street from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but after moving to SIHF’s West Main Street office, O’Neill took on more responsibility reaching out to populations that still might not have insurance. She’s sometimes at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Granite City for a weekly community breakfast on Saturdays.
Even if she doesn’t receive new clients, people know where they can find her, and they eventually make their way to her through word of mouth, O’Neill said.
She also helps people with major life changes adjust their insurance. Even when the marketplace is closed, those clients may change their plans.
SIHF has one last sign-up event before the open-enrollment period ends.
It will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Gateway Center, which is in Collinsville near the intersection of Interstates 55 and 255.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” O’Neill said.