Newsroom | Experience

Open Enrollment Outreach Adapts During COVID-19

Darci Cole may be a familiar face to people living in northeastern Oklahoma.

A native Oklahoman, she grew up in Vinita and is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Known as “Mimi” to her seven grandchildren, Cole and her family live in the Tulsa area.

Cole, a longtime community outreach coordinator for Health Care Service Corporation’s plan in Oklahoma, is a lot like many of the people she serves. That kinship helps her understand the concerns of people looking for some help with plan options and enrollment questions as they look for 2021 health care coverage.

People searching for coverage can get to know Cole and her teammates by watching their video profiles. The insurer hopes all Oklahomans, no matter their race, age or ethnicity, will find connection with one of its nine outreach coordinators and reach out to them for information or enroll in a plan, even during the pandemic.

“The pandemic is not going to be a problem for us. We are like geckos. You adapt to the environment.”

Open enrollment to purchase marketplace coverage for individuals and their families began Nov. 1 and lasts through Dec. 15. Many may qualify for financial assistance under the Affordable Care Act.

People who are eligible for Medicare may select a Medicare Advantage plan until Dec. 7.

“We’re still able to connect and create that warm feeling and trust,” says Melissa Summar, communications consultant for the Mobile Assistance Center (MAC) team. “Oklahoma is tight-knit, and people want to call someone they know, especially in rural and smaller towns. They can find someone they can connect to. Everyone on the MAC team lives in Oklahoma and can help anyone in Oklahoma.”

Building trust and connection always has been key to HCSC’s enrollment efforts across Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. This year, outreach coordinators in the five states have adjusted to the pandemic by holding online seminars and virtual one-on-one appointments, as well as engaging with people using Facebook and Twitter. They still reach out to those who want to communicate by phone or mail, too.

Outreach coordinators in Illinois attended community events, distributing food boxes and winter coats to strengthen connections.

New Mexico outreach coordinators organized community events, such as flu shot clinics and food distributions, to support potential and existing members.

In Texas, outreach coordinators have held online bingo games to engage with current members and establish rapport with new people. Winners get their prizes in the mail.

“The pandemic is not going to be a problem for us,” says Karen Travit, a senior field associate for HCSC’s plan in Texas. “We are like geckos. You adapt to the environment.”

Moving forward despite the pandemic

Before the pandemic, an estimated 30 million Americans were uninsured, according to the most recent information from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 27 million people are at risk of losing their employer-sponsored health coverage as the outbreak continues to disrupt to economy and leads to job losses, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports.

Those losing job-based coverage are eligible to enroll in coverage outside the annual open enrollment period.

Travit says health risks associated with COVID-19 are prompting people to reach out and explore their insurance options. People who lost jobs — and their health insurance — may need help selecting plans. Others who have gone without coverage are searching for plans in case they get sick.

“We have to find new ways to communicate with them,” says Travit, who has years of experience helping people with enrollment. “We are talking to people who are anxious about becoming infected and looking for help online. You can’t let the situation keep you from moving forward. When you touch people’s lives, you have a responsibility to help them.”

In New Mexico, a state with a diverse population that strongly values relationships, outreach coordinators strive to continue building and maintaining trust by educating and engaging members, which can help with retainment. Members then share their experiences with friends, relatives and neighbors. Since spring, outreach coordinators have called at-risk Medicare members, who may need help getting food, prescriptions or other necessities, to connect them with resources.

They also have conducted Medicare educational sessions for community agencies statewide.

“It’s important that our members know we care about them and their health, especially during this time.” says Cynthia Baldonado, senior community health initiatives manager for the New Mexico plan. “We’re committed to serving our communities and members throughout the state.”

Finding someone who understands

As Oklahoma’s reported COVID-19 cases rose during the summer, outreach coordinators began tweaking plans for open enrollment and incorporating online engagement efforts, including the MAC team video profiles.

Need help from someone who speaks Spanish? Watch Emma Krummich as she explains in Spanish how she can assist you.

“I’m here to help Oklahomans to better understand the coverage options that meet the needs of their family,” she says. “The enrollment process online can be confusing and I’m here to help walk them through the process in both Spanish and English.”

After watching the videos, people can schedule one-on-one appointments with the outreach coordinator with whom they feel most comfortable.

“It’s so hard right now because everyone is so disconnected from each other,” Summar says. “It’s really important for us to put a face with a name, so people can speak to someone who understands them. We have a great, diverse group of people who can ensure families have access to what they need.”

Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.