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Libraries Serve As Health Insurance Info Hubs

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Elana Gordon, WHYY

Thu, Feb 13 2014

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

The buzz at the American Library Association's winter meeting recently wasn't just about the annual awards (a.k.a. the book award "super bowl"); the Affordable Care Act was also on the agenda. Libraries across the country have been trying to meet a growing demand for health insurance information.

At the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch, library coordinator Nani Manion has started running twice-weekly enrollment clinics in the technology lab. Manion is one of 33 librarians in the Philly system who have undergone a five-hour training session to become certified application counselors.

On a recent morning, Alfred Di Martini stopped in after having problems going through the government website,, on his own. “I came in here and saw the flyer, and the person at the front desk told me about it,” Di Martini says. He sits down in front of a computer, with a librarian on hand to assist, and he searches for options for his wife as well as the caregiver of his 95-year-old mother, who are both uninsured.

Another man, uninsured and in need of physical therapy for a past injury, comes in to browse insurance options.

At least through March, 12 library locations in Philadelphia are taking individual sign-up appointments or hosting these walk-in sessions. The library cites data estimating that 210,000 Philadelphia residents lack health insurance.

“It started off slow post-holiday and because of the weather,” says Manion. But the pace has picked up; one day last week, six people showed up for help. That might not seem like a lot, but the process for some individuals took nearly two hours. "I could have used more assistance,” she says.

The added service also means some trade-offs. While Manion conducts sessions, another computer class is on hold.

Last summer, the Free Library’s director, Siobhan Reardon, issued a system-wide request for librarians who were interested the training.  

“Our role here in library land has been changing rapid fire,” says Reardon, who was surprised to learn from a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study that more than one-third of people are coming to the Philly library for health information, spurring this latest effort. “The trail into getting insurance is not a neatly designed trail, and so there’s nothing better than a librarian to help navigate.”

Libraries As Key Sources For Health Information

Libraries have always been more than book lenders, providing services that include early childhood education, employment assistance and computer literacy skills. The economic downturn heightened the need for those services, and health information has long been in demand.

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

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