County supports relaxing CHOICES


Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2006 at 9:21 p.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE: How it works

  • Current qualifications limit annual income at $14,355 and hours at 32 a week. Also, the program is not open to employees who are offered insurance at work.

  • Changes that ease criteria for the CHOICES health care program to enable more people to qualify earned the support of the Alachua County Commission on Tuesday.
    Also endorsed was an outreach program that involves hiring contract workers to sell the program.
    The modifications will allow applicants to earn more money and work fewer hours to qualify. They also open CHOICES to workers who can get insurance on the job, but find it too costly.
    An ordinance set to be considered March 14 must be passed to finalize the changes, which are an attempt to boost enrollment yet still maintain fiscal responsibility.
    "This is public money and it will need accountability," Commissioner Mike Byerly said. "To protect the hard-earned credibility of this program, I think we need some kind of built-in accountability."
    CHOICES stands for Community Health Offering Innovative Care and Education Services. It is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2004.
    Enrollment started in October, and 72 people have signed up, a figure disappointing to some commissioners. The tax was initially estimated to bring in about $7 million but has earned more than $9.2 million.
    Current qualifications limit annual income at $14,355 and working hours at 32 a week. Also, the program is not open to employees who are offered insurance at work.
    However, data collected by CHOICES administrators indicate those qualifications are cutting out many applicants.
    Changes will boost the pay limit to $19,140, which is double the current poverty rate. Also, eligibility will be extended to people offered insurance at work but who find it too expensive. Finally, work hours will be reduced to 25 hours for people who are caring for a dependent or who are enrolled in school.
    Specific criteria for the insurance and work-hour qualifications will be presented to the commission for the March 14 meeting.
    The changes were recommended by the CHOICES advisory board, which believes the changes will spur enrollment.
    "We don't come with these three changes lightly but we feel they are essential to a successful program," said advisory board Chairman Jim Stringfellow.
    CHOICES offers participants limited services in primary medical and dental care, disease management and prescriptions.
    Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who campaigned hard for the passage of CHOICES, voted against changing the insurance qualification.
    "It may be a disincentive for any company to offer health insurance," Chestnut said. "We don't want to create disincentives."
    Commissioners also approved an outreach plan that will maintain some advertising but increase outreach through the use of part-time contract workers.
    The workers will be trained to go to businesses, churches, neighborhoods, hospitals and other locations to explain the program and enroll participants.
    They will get hourly pay plus bonuses for the number of people they enroll.
    Proponents said the workers are needed to reach workers who haven't heard about the program or are skeptical of it.
    "This is like a sales staff. They will be trained. They will learn the county message so that they are not giving out bad information," CHOICES Director Candice King said.
    Byerly voted against this measure, saying he wanted specific information about their pay, training and accountability.
    Commissioners also voted to get an update on the CHOICES program at regular meetings for the next few month to monitor progress. Commissioner Paula DeLaney voted against it.
    She said it was micromanagement. The CHOICES tax is in effect for seven years and the money can be spent only on the program.
    Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or at swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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