Partnership Can Help Anyone Navigate Choppy Health Insurance Waters

by Elizabeth Van Wye

Could you save money on your health insurance and also get better access to healthcare providers?

Morgan Eldredge and the health care navigators of Fishing Partnership Support Services in Chatham would like to help you do just that. Not a fisherman? The Fishing Partnership is not limited to serving the fishing community.

"The health insurance help is available for the entire community," Eldredge said.

As of 2024, eligibility levels for subsidized insurance have expanded and three new providers have been added to Commonwealth Health Connector, the state's marketplace for health and dental insurance. Income levels to qualify for subsidized insurance plans are now $72,900 for an individual and $150,000 for a family of four, or 500 percent of the federal poverty limit. In addition to the extension of the income eligibility levels, as of 2024 plans will be offered by three more providers — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and United Healthcare — joining current participating carriers Fallon Health, Health New England, Mass General Brigham Health Plan, Tufts Health Plan, and WellSense Health Plan.

Founded in 1997, the Partnership provides a number of services exclusively to the commercial fishing community. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, they also became Health Connector Navigators in order to help all Massachusetts residents, not just the commercial fishing community, understand the law and get good health insurance.

Fishermen are particularly aware of the importance of health insurance. A Wellfleet fisherman recently wrote of the need for coverage in an emergency. "Being in our line of work," wrote Ben P., "you know the constant risk for injury is always present. Whether it be something as simple as a hard slip on deck, or adverse as an arm caught in the winch, an ER visit doesn’t come cheap and could take away an entire season’s earnings. Having insurance gives you the safety net you need to protect both your body and bank account."

"Even if you think you don't qualify," Eldredge said in a phone interview, "it's worth trying." Qualification is driven by income and that can be unpredictable, she added, especially for commercial fishermen or anyone who works in a seasonal business. A navigator, like their nautical counterpart, can help residents find their way to getting the most affordable and robust plan for their needs.

One of the biggest challenges for anyone looking for health insurance is navigating the different programs and calculating income, Eldredge said. "You can lower your premium by having a conversation about how to calculate income," she added. "It's especially hard when earning a seasonal income. When income fluctuates, eligibility changes."

The Fishing Partnership works closely with individuals and families to help estimate earnings, even for the self-employed. A health insurance checklist is provided on their website to ensure all needed information is incorporated in the calculation, including paystubs, benefits letters and statements. "The more information we have, the better we can guide you in applying for coverage."

There might be benefits even if a resident has coverage at work. "A lot of times that coverage is expensive and the deductible is high," Eldredge said. Residents might not go to the doctor when needed because of a high deductible. "That can be a huge barrier," Eldredge said.

Eldredge is one of three navigators in the Chatham office of the Fishing Partnership, along with her sister, Shannon Eldredge, and Julia Messersmith. All are local residents with deep ties to the fishing industry and years of experience, trained and certified by the Health Connector and MassHealth to help people understand options and apply for health insurance. They have helped more than 330 individuals and families in the past year alone, Eldredge noted. Massachusetts is one of five states, plus the District of Columbia, where health insurance is mandatory.

Recent changes to MassHealth, the Commonwealth's free provider of Medicaid and Children's Health services, have made that plan better too, Eldredge stressed. If you qualify it can be "a way to get help and transition until you start to make more income. And then you can upgrade," she added.

Open enrollment for 2024 is currently underway and runs through Jan. 23. However, you can apply anytime if you have experienced a major life change including marriage, birth, divorce, death or loss of access to coverage.

With the end of the COVID-19 health emergency in April, "many people lost their coverage and didn't realize it until an emergency arose," Eldredge said.

Anyone who has lost coverage can reach out to the Fishing Partnership at any time for help in identifying the options and to determine if they qualify for financial assistance.

Eldredge, whose office is located in Munson Meeting in Chatham, stressed the value of the local connection to anyone looking to get the best, most affordable plan for them. "If you are feeling stuck at any point, we are accessible in town," she said, adding, "if you have problems with an existing plan, we can jump the phone queue for you. Use us as much as you need to get answers!" Navigators can be reached at 774-840-9393.

In addition to serving as Health Connector Navigators for all residents, the Fishing Partnership, with four offices in Gloucester, New Bedford, Plymouth and Chatham, provides Health and Wellness, Safety at Sea and Economic Security support services in the communities where fishing families live.