Libraries serve as health insurance information centers

By Elana Gordon, WHYY

What can’t a librarian do? Many are now becoming health insurance guides.

It wasn’t just the annual awards (aka the Book Awards “Super Bowl”) that made a splash at the American Library Association’s winter meeting recently; the Affordable Care Act was also on the agenda. Libraries across the country have struggled to meet the growing demand for health insurance information.

At the Free Library in Central Philadelphia, library coordinator Nani Manion has started a twice-weekly admissions clinic in the technology lab. Manion is one of 33 librarians in the Philadelphia system who have undergone a 5-hour training session to become a certified application counselor.

On a recent morning, Alfred Di Martini stopped after he had trouble navigating the government website “I came in and saw the flyer and the guy at the front desk told me about it,” DiMartini said. Sitting at his computer, assisted by a librarian, he searches for options for the caregivers of his wife and 95-year-old mother, both of whom are uninsured.


Another person who is uninsured and needs physical therapy for a past injury comes in to browse insurance options.

Through at least March, 12 libraries in Philadelphia are accepting individuals to sign up for appointments or to host these walk-in meetings. Data cited by the library estimates that 210,000 Philadelphia residents lack health insurance.

“Because of the weather, the post-holiday started off slowly,” Manion said. But the pace picked up; one day last week, six people showed up for help. This may not seem like much, but for some people, the process takes nearly two hours. “I could have used more help,” she said.

Added services also mean some trade-offs. While Manion is running a class, another computer class is on hold.

Last summer, Siobhan Reardon, director of the Free Library, sent out a system-wide request to librarians interested in training.

“Our role in the library field has been changing rapidly,” said Reardon, who was surprised to learn from a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study that more than one-third of people come to Philadelphia Libraries’ access to health information drives this latest effort. “The pathway to getting insurance is not a well-designed pathway, so there is nothing more than a librarian to help navigate.”

Libraries are the primary source of health information


Libraries have always been more than book lenders, offering services including early childhood education, employment assistance and computer literacy skills. The recession has increased demand for these services, and health information has long been needed.

The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) estimates that 28 million people seek health information from libraries in one year.

“So we know people are going to libraries, and we want to make sure librarians understand the community resources and websites they need to provide them with accurate information,” said Mamie Bittner, director of government affairs at IMLS, who was in Philadelphia for the conference .

As the Newbery and Caldecott Awards get exciting, Bittner and several other librarians from Texas to Idaho to northeastern Pennsylvania are brainstorming ways to help Their customers go through the process of signing up for health insurance.

Last summer, IMLS awarded a $286,104 grant to produce webinars for librarians. More than 1,000 people have participated in the project since its launch, Bittner said.

“Libraries are under pressure. They are under pressure in many ways, but it’s their job to meet the community’s high-priority information needs,” she said, noting that books The museum actively assists seniors with the introduction of Medicare Part D.

“We’re seeing an influx”

Bittner said the library “is taking on a variety of roles” as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. Not all libraries have grown like Philadelphia’s free libraries. “Other workers are just getting ready so they know where the sites are and can help people find them,” Bittner said.

In Delaware, state librarian Annie Norman says they are constantly hungry for useful, accurate information so they can best assist their patrons.

“We’re seeing an influx of people who need help with work, so much so that when this big health care program came out, we thought, ‘They’re going to come in! 35,000 people might be asking questions on our doorstep, ‘ So we want to be ready to help them,” Norman said.

The system first turned to the state to operate the healthcare marketplace in partnership with the federal government. Since then, Delaware libraries have hosted more than three dozen public events.

Navigators or federally certified application assistants use library spaces to meet people and help them sign up. The library’s computers have a reliable and protected internet connection, which is helpful for those who don’t have internet access elsewhere.

Norman says they haven’t seen the influx they initially expected, but they’re still tracking the questions people are asking – 300 so far so they can better answer in the future insurance issues.

“We’re laying the groundwork for the next few years,” said Cathay Keough, reference services coordinator for the Delaware library department.

Methods also vary by library and community. In Atlantic City, libraries have a history of being responsive to the community. Superstorm Sandy is an example.

“We’re very prepared to help the community with things like that because they think we’re a place to help provide that information,” said Julie Senack, Atlantic City Free Public Books Director of Library Information and Community Education Services. Libraries became FEMA bases where people applied for aid. Now, she said, the library is applying those lessons to the promotion of the Affordable Care Act.

“Like FEMA, the first thing we did with the Affordable Care Act was learning,” Senack said. “We don’t have to know everything, we just need to understand how to get the right and accurate information and connect with people who know and put them in our orbit.”

This story is part of a partnership with WHYY, NPR Reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an independent editorial project of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.