By Emily Wangen
With budget cuts eliminating Affordable Care Act navigation services in Johnson County, Johnson County Public Health and the Iowa City Free Clinic have joined to sponsor services from Karen Wielert, a certified application counselor and former ACA navigator for Planned Parenthood.
Wielert said working as an ACA navigator was a good fit with her educational background in social work and public health and allowed her to help others.
“I really enjoy helping people and seeing the relief on their face when they know they’re going to have insurance and it’s not going to kill their budget,” Wielert said.
After an 84 percent cut to the budget, the program Weilert was involved in through Planned Parenthood had to be discontinued in October.
Wielert started helping county residents on Nov. 1 and will continue her services throughout the enrollment period, which ends on Dec. 15.
During this time, she will move around to different locations across Johnson County, including county Public Health, Iowa City Free Medical Clinic as well as the Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty Public Libraries.
Wielert said her days in Johnson County have been filled with appointments to help individuals with their questions regarding health insurance.
During a typical appointment, she said, she helps individuals fill out the online application and help them decide which coverage plan would work best for them.
“It’s very important to be able to understand the differences between the plans,” Wielert said.
While the positions of ACA navigator and counselor are very similar because both assist in enrolling individuals in health plans, Wielert said, there are some differences.
An ACA navigator tends to travel within larger areas (she served 14 counties as a navigator) and to do community education and outreach programs. Counselors tend to stay in a local area such as a hospital and do less of the education and outreach.
The Free Medical Clinic, located on Towncrest Drive, had positive results from having an ACA navigator’s services. Clinic Director Barbara Vinograde said over the last few years, the navigation assistance has allowed patients to have face-to-face help, noting some patients were able to successfully transition away from the clinic and have health coverage for the first time in their life.
Director of Johnson County Public Health Dave Koch said the services offered by Wielert were important, noting he believes it is important for people to have health insurance.
Once Public Health learned that Wielert would no longer act as a navigator, officials began to work with Vinograde to have someone in the community to provide residents assistance with navigating the health-care marketplace.
“It’s a tough system for a lot of people to navigate,” Koch said.
In 2014, Public Health went through the steps to become an organization that could hire a health counselor. Koch said having that paperwork already done made it an easier decision to reach out to Wielert, who was already trained as a counselor.
As of Nov. 22, Wielert had helped 108 individuals either in-person or over the phone or email and had met with 58 of those who contacted her in person in order to provide assistance, Jennifer Miller of Public Health said in an email to The Daily Iowan.
“I know everyone who has worked with her has been appreciative whether or not she’s been actually enrolled them in a program or not,” Vinograde said.
With the enrollment period nearing its close, Vinograde and Koch both said they believed the services provided by Wielert could be continued.
“We live in such a supportive community as far as providing affordable access to health care,” Vinograde said. “It’s very clear how valuable this service is, and I would anticipate we could continue to work with Johnson County Public Health.”