VALPARAISO | In a dimly lit conference room Tuesday, 53 men and women sat in long rows, with bulky binders flipped open and half-full water bottles and caffeinated iced drinks at hand.
They scribbled notes as PowerPoint slides flashed on a large screen. At the front of the room, Carla Baxter narrated the slides, translating Indiana code legalese into something that sounded more like English.
Her job is to prepare the students for a test to become certified state navigators, tasked with guiding people through the open enrollment process for health care under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Tuesday is the first day of open enrollment, meaning Americans can call or go online to compare plans and prices. But before the people in the room can help others wade through their options, they must be certified.
Baxter developed a course to help potential navigators prepare for the test. A certified insurance instructor for the state of Indiana, she is principal consultant for the downstate consulting firm Baxter & Associates. She is a licensed representative for Bankers Life and Casualty insurance company and teaches pre-licensing and continuing education classes to insurance agents.
She admits she doesn't have all the answers.
"I only know the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Tuesday was the first of three day-long training sessions in the HealthLinc building for people preparing to take the state navigator certification test. Between then and Tuesday, the students have to pass the test. Potential navigators must get at least 72 percent of the questions correct to pass the certification exam, Baxter said.
The certification test is administered at multiple times at various Ivy Tech locations, said Beth Wrobel, CEO of the federally qualified health center HealthLinc.
Wrobel arranged to host last week's training in the northern part of the state so people didn't have to travel to Indianapolis.
"The only training was in Indy," she said.
HealthLinc was among the agencies that received grant money to hire navigators.
"We knew we needed to train more people than the 3.5 (full-time equivalent employees) the grant was for," she said. "So I needed to find a cost-effective option, and it was to host the trainer in our location."
Before the lunch break, Baxter asked for a show of hands. Anyone who had helped a person enroll in Medicaid, Healthy Indiana Plan or the Children's Health Insurance Program should raise their hand. A little more than half did.
"This is a wow moment," Baxter said. "We have some for-real newbies in here. OK, this is really exciting. Wow."
That means the other 20 or so people had never helped anyone sign up for health care before. Among them was Corinne Vasa.
The Griffith woman worked at a home improvement store for eight years. Monday was her last day, and Tuesday she was in the certified navigator test prep class. Vasa, who also is fluent in Spanish, said working with customers and her previous experience as a teacher helped her get hired at Community HealthNet, a federally qualified health center in Gary.
She's good at explaining things, she said.
Gary resident Louise Hill, who had worked as a phlebotomist, attended the training as a new hire for Community HealthNet in Gary.
"It's quite a bit of material (to learn) in three days," Hill said.
She is confident she will be an effective navigator.
"I'm used to communicating with people as a phlebotomist," she said.
Navigators are on the spectrum of consumer assistants. Also in the mix are non-navigator assistance personnel, certified application counselors, and providers, agents and brokers, Baxter said.
All marketplaces, whether they're state-based, a state-federal partnership or federally facilitated (which Indiana is) require navigators that meet federal standards. On top of that, Indiana requires a state certification for navigators, Baxter said.
"You help," she told the class. "You assist with the enrollment, but you don't advise like a licensed agent. You cannot advise on the final selection of a plan."
Clarence Walker has Gary roots but works for Indiana Health Centers in South Bend as a bilingual outreach enrollment assistant. He's had the job for about a month but is experienced in applicant services. He attended the training.
The Affordable Care Act requirements are a lot to take in.
"I think it's confusing at the beginning," he said. "As the months go on, it will get cleared up."
He is puzzled by the lack of marketing in Indiana.
"You think you'd see posters and stuff out now," he said. "I didn't see anything. I'm wondering, 'Where are all the commercials and ads and billboards?'"
If Walker passes the test and becomes a certified navigator, he will help people sign up for health care starting Tuesday. He expects a flood of interest at the beginning.
"I think it'll be good," he said. "It's a life-changing thing for the country."