The University of New Mexico Hospital is beefing up its staff to help patients understand and take advantage of major changes in healthcare coverage unfolding under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Existing employees are also being trained to answer health reform questions and to help eligible patients apply for insurance coverage under new plans offered under the act. Members of the hospital's financial services team will be available at more than 20 UNM Hospital clinics and offices as well as a number of First Choice and other community clinics.

Coverage under these new plans will begin January 1, 2014, but patients can apply for and enroll in the plans beginning this month. Hospital officials have also been holding community meetings around Albuquerque to discuss health reform changes.

“We’re doing our best to provide the necessary resources to make this work,” said Rodney McNease, executive director for UNM Hospital’s behavioral health department, during a recent townhall meeting in southwest Albuquerque’s Alamosa neighborhood. “If people visit UNM Hospitals clinics and it appears they’re eligible, we will help them enroll in Medicaid or the new insurance exchange.”

UNM Hospitals plans to hire about 25 new temporary employees to work as certified application counselors who can help patients navigate their insurance options and apply for coverage.

The Medicaid program – called Centennial Care in New Mexico – has been expanded to cover many people who weren’t previously eligible. And those who aren’t eligible for Medicaid/Centennial Care and who aren’t covered by other private insurance plans, may be eligible for health insurance coverage from the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange. This is a new marketplace offering consumers a variety of health plans from which to choose. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for federal subsidies to offset the cost of premiums.

Nearly all of the approximately 27,000 patients currently enrolled in the UNM Care program will be eligible for one of these new plans. The UNM Care program is a healthcare assistance program that provides quality medical care to qualified Bernalillo County residents.

“While UNM Care will not be eliminated, the program will be changing,” McNease said. “For those enrolled in the new health exchange, UNM Care may be able to offer financial assistance for out-of-pocket expense, like deductibles and co-pays.”

Patients currently enrolled in the UNM Care program will need to apply for one of these plans before the end of the year, he added.

Patients with questions about health reform or who would like help enrolling in an insurance program can call 505-272-2521 UNM Hospitals Patient Financial Service representative.