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As of today, the Affordable Care Act's new health exchanges are now open. And polls show the public is still pretty confused about how it's all supposed to work. All around the nation, a small army of people has been training to help consumers sort through their insurance options, choose a plan and sign up.
NPR's Julie Rovner attended one of these training sessions in Washington, D.C.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: It's day two of a five-day session for about a hundred people training to become assisters for D.C. Healthlink. That's the health exchange that will serve Washington, D.C. This morning, they're gathered in a hotel ballroom, following along as Elizabeth Kaplan, a staff attorney for Whitman-Walker Health, runs through likely scenarios.
ELIZABETH KAPLAN: Imagine a consumer named Joe, who takes regular medication for diabetes management, sees a physician several times a year for diabetes management, and at one point in the year he gets into a biking accident.
ROVNER: Which sends him to the emergency room. Kaplan says if he has $3,000 of total health costs and chooses a platinum health plan - that's the most generous...
KAPLAN: He's likely to only pay about $300 of the total cost of his care. Does that make sense? Any questions about this?
ROVNER: And so it goes, eight hours a day for five straight days.
ERIN LOUBIER: They take certification tests every day of training and a cumulative certification test at the end.
ROVNER: That's Erin Loubier, another senior staff attorney with Whitman-Walker Health, which the city has hired to help run the training. Loubier says about half the trainees already know something about health insurance and half are novices. But they all have one thing in common: They're serious about their task.
LOUBIER: You can see from the questions they are really enthusiastic about their role. They really are trying to make sure that they understand it.
ROVNER: Deborah Bazemore is one of those trainees who's working hard to be sure she gets things right. She works for Unity Health Care, which provides care to many of the city's uninsured and working poor residents. She used to verify insurance coverage at a hospital. But she says she's looking forward to actually helping people face-to-face.
DEBORAH BAZEMORE: I felt like it was something that I could help educate people in the area to help them know that, OK, there is someone out there that can explain something that you're not familiar with. And even though they are responsible for making the choice, we can at least show them, you know, what's a good plan for the type of care that they need.
ROVNER: And these are not just people hired off the street. All of them work for local nonprofit organizations that were specifically chosen by the D.C. exchange both for their existing roots in the community, and for their ability to serve different populations in different parts of the city.
Richard Sorian is the exchange's communications director.
RICHARD SORIAN: They've got relationships with people that are already established and they're trusted. And the idea is people will be able to come to them and get all of the help they need, so that they don't wind up either being confused or not getting the insurance that they want.
ROVNER: But along with that trust comes verification. Since these people will be getting access to personal information, there are some serious background checks, says Loubier.
LOUBIER: They both are fingerprinted and they go through FBI and local screening for any issues that might come up.
ROVNER: These assisters won't just be staying in the places they work. The D.C. exchange is planning to fan out to libraries, community centers, even local pharmacies. They'll also be available for house calls if people call the exchange hotline to make an appointment.
Twenty-five year old assister-in-training John Esposito says he's really excited about getting going.
JOHN ESPOSITO: I'm ecstatic. It's great to have a job that actually helps people in a tangible and real way on a one-on-one basis, and helps society as a whole.
ROVNER: Like the rest of the health law, the training program has had some glitches. Some organizations around the country actually returned training grants when Republicans in Congress demanded reams of information about how they planned to protect consumers' personal information. And in some areas, the training is still underway even as the exchanges are getting up and running.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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