The nation's librarians, including those in the Tucson-area, will be recruited to help people get signed up for insurance under President Obama's health-care overhaul.
Up to 17,000 U.S. libraries will be part of the effort to get information and crucial computer time to the millions of uninsured Americans who need to get coverage under the law.
The undertaking will be announced today in Chicago at the annual conference of the American Library Association, according to federal officials who released the information early to The Associated Press.
The initiative starts Oct. 1, when people without health coverage will start shopping for insurance online on new websites where they can get tax credits to help pay the cost. Low-income people will be enrolled in an expanded version of Medicaid in states, including Arizona, that adopt it.
"We are just starting to get information about the health-care coverage, and how libraries will play a role," said Amber Mathewson, Pima County Public Library service manager.
"We are getting the information out to librarians and computer instructors, said Mathewson, adding that Library Director Melinda Cervantes, Deputy Director Karyn Prechtel and eight librarians are in Chicago at the national conference.
The county library system can direct the public to HealthCare.gov - the revamped federal website that is the hub for health law information, Mathewson said. The site gives information about health coverage and lists available health plans.
"Our library staff will be available to help at all 27 branches, and county Health Department nurses at 11 of our branches can answer questions about health plans during specific hours," said Mathewson.
Currently, a person can come to a library and have access four hours a day to a computer. However, "if we have a huge influx then we may have to set aside computers for this program," Mathewson said.
About 7 million people nationwide are expected to sign up for coverage in the new marketplaces next year, but the heavy emphasis on the Web-based portals puts anyone without access to a computer at a disadvantage.
Libraries equipped with public computers and Internet access already serve as a bridge across the digital divide, so it made sense to get them involved, said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"Libraries are a tremendous resource for people in their communities," Bataille said. "They're already a destination many individuals go to when they're seeking out information and understanding on a variety of issues."
Libraries also have public spaces where meetings can be held. And they already provide health information to 28 million people a year via public-access computers, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal grant-making agency, which will coordinate the new effort with CMS. The two federal agencies also worked together during the rollout of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, experience that should help with this effort, Bataille said.
"Our library staff will be available to help at all 27 branches, and county Health Department nurses at 11 of our branches can answer questions about health plans during specific hours."
Pima County Public Library service manager.
For information about the library initiative to help people learn more about the health-care overhaul, call 791-4010 and ask for Amber Mathewson, Pima County Public Library service manager.
Star reporter Carmen Duarte and The Associated Press contributed to this story.