Tampa, Florida -- This week, millions of consumers started down the road in search of health insurance and there's no doubt they've encountered some bumps along the way.
And the very people who are supposed to guide them on this journey, the navigators, are in short supply. So far, there are only 54 fully-trained and licensed for the entire state.
Michelle Ray is one of them.
"It's exciting; we're making history," she says from her office near USF.
Ray's main tool, the Affordable Care Act website, crashed on Day 1 and has still been slow, but even the computer glitches can't dampen Ray's enthusiasm. She says she's still been able to help people enroll with paper applications and answer a lot of questions.
"When you're sitting across the desk from someone who is sharing their personal story and opening up to you, you feel good that you're able to help them," she said.
USF Health received $4.2 million from the federal government to run the navigator program for much of the state, but that grant came just six weeks ago. Jodi Ray (no relation to Michelle) of USF Health is not disappointed by what they've accomplished in that time and she says the program will continue to ramp up.
"We're turning out new navigators every day," said Jodi Ray. "I think everybody will start to settle in and figure out what's worked best, in terms of where we're going to reach the most people."
And what do people seeking insurance help think? Christopher Dawson consulted with a navigator on Tuesday and was back again on Friday, and still no final answer on what he'll pay for insurance -- but he's getting close. Now he's expecting an email.
"I'm excited," says the 20-year-old USF senior. "It's like on Christmas with a little kid waiting."
While the marketplace doors opened this week, this insurance process is more a marathon than a sprint. The next date consumers need to keep in mind is Dec. 15. If they're signed up by then, they'll have coverage on Jan. 1.
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