Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series that looks at how the Affordable Care Act affects the region.
As the government prepares to pull millions of uninsured Americans under an umbrella of health care for the first time, officials are leaning on community health centers for outreach and education.
"Some people have never had insurance, so, therefore, they don't understand what a co-pay is," HealthLinc CEO Beth Wrobel said. "They don't understand what a deductible is."
HealthLinc is one of three federally qualified health centers, or FQHCs, in Northwest Indiana. The other two are Community HealthNet and NorthShore Health Centers.
The centers serve underserved areas or populations, offer a sliding fee scale, provide comprehensive services, have an ongoing quality assurance program and have a governing board of directors, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.
"An FQHC is kind of the safety net of the hospitals," Wrobel said.
Their role as the go-to place for health care in some communities makes them a natural vehicle for Affordable Care Act outreach.
In July, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded grants to the local centers, earmarking the dollars for additional workers to help people enroll in health care plans.
Open enrollment starts Oct. 1, and the Affordable Care Act individual mandate takes effect Jan. 1.
"I hope that we're barraged, and I need to find ways to fund more (workers) to help people enroll," Wrobel said.
Dr. Janet Seabrook, executive director of Community HealthNet, expects the role of health centers to expand and to become more of a resource.
"I think that, as time goes on, people will realize what the federal government has figured out years ago, that there's quality health care available through community health centers," she said. "We're held to a very high standard. We have outcomes that can be held against any national standards."
Health centers offer wrap-around services, she said.
If a pregnant woman visits a center, workers can have her meet with a social worker and behavioral therapist and can make sure there's a crib in the home, Seabrook said.
"It's just a lot more than you would get at a private physician office," she said. "We're here for the community. That's what we do."
Community HealthNet has enough staff to handle an increase in patient load, but the center is prepared to bring on more, if needed, she said.
Patients who visit an FQHC for primary care will have options for expanded treatment under the new health care legislation, Wrobel said.
"Sometimes someone can get better if we could only get some specialists," she said. "With the Affordable Care Act, that opens the door for a lot of patients beyond the clinics."
The need for community health centers will remain, she said.
"We need to be there when they need us, so they don't go to the ER," she said. "We're not going to go away. Our role will get stronger."