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Santa branches out: Veterans groups join forces to provide free Christmas trees

Santa Claus is known for delivering presents in his sleigh, but sometimes he even offers motorcycle-delivery of the tree for those presents to go underneath.

In an effort spearheaded by local veterans groups, Eau Claire residents will have the opportunity to take home free spruce trees for their homes or yards for the second Christmas season in a row. Those within a 100-mile radius can even have them delivered.

Last year, local volunteers dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and hand-delivered trees to people around the area. Shortly after a photo ran in the newspaper, Dave Zien, a veteran and former state senator who came up with the free tree idea, received an excited call from a man in Tucson, Ariz., who recognized his grandson as the holly, jolly man of Christmas.

The tree giveaway was so well-received in its first year that the participating veterans organizations — including Wheels of Liberty, Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls and Road 2 Freedom — decided to do it again. Six people currently are signed up to be delivery drivers, but Zien said there’s always room for more.

“The problem is, a lot of people who don’t have the money to buy a tree don’t have a car, so they don’t have a way to get out here,” said Bob Heller, founder of Uncle Bob’s Happy Widow Program and one of the project’s volunteers.

On Sunday afternoon, Zien, Heller and a few more volunteers shared stories around a fire between Roadside Diner and Mac’s Seat Cover on Menomonie Street while they listened to the Green Bay Packers game and waited for residents to stop by and take home a symbol of the season. Though the volunteers will rotate, the group will be there every day from 8 a.m. to nightfall until Christmas Eve, ready to help people pick out, cut and tie trees on the roofs of cars.

”There’s something about real Christmas trees: the aroma, the look, even the feel,” Zien said. “There’s an energy about them.” It’s an energy that he said everyone deserves to feel, regardless of if they can afford to buy a tree. He noted this is not in any way an attempt to undermine those who sell trees for profit. In fact, he said, he hopes real Christmas trees sell out — it’s just about spreading the spirit.

Although the trees are free, courtesy of several area veterans groups, those who feel inclined can deposit money in a donation box on the side of the site’s warming hut. Any money donated will be distributed among area veterans organizations.

Zien said he has been impressed with the number of people who have thus far felt inclined to donate. Throughout the first day, the donation box was filled with $466.

Dodie Neuenfeldt, president of the Augusta VFW Auxiliary, said the cause is one that simply makes sense.

“It’s vets helping vets,” Neuenfeldt said. “It’s always been that way.”

The free-will tree offering is a way for veterans to help out each other and other community members.

Shortly after the end of the Packers game, Elizabeth Robert of Eau Claire stopped by the free tree stand for her second time that day to collect boughs for porch pot decorations for herself and her friends. She had initially seen the display on her way home from church, but she came back wearing mittens so she could better handle the piney branches.

Taking these boughs home with her got her in the Christmas spirit, Robert said, and she had been decorating all day. She said the smell of pine reminded her of childhood memories when her family would always have a real Christmas tree. Plus, it allowed her to support local causes.

“It’s just wonderful,” Robert said. “It creates a great awareness of giving back and helping out in your community.”


Short on federal funding, health insurance enrollment navigators switch tactics

Enrollment is down sharply on the federal health insurance marketplace this fall, and the consumer groups that help with registrations think they know why.

They don’t have the staff to help as many customers as before because President Donald Trump’s administration cut funding. The federal government is spending $10 million this year on navigators who help individuals enroll. The government spent $36 million in 2017 and $63 million in 2016.

“We don’t have the people to provide the enrollment assistance nor to do the outreach and marketing to let people know what’s happening,” said Jodi Ray at the University of South Florida, who has overseen Florida’s largest navigator program since 2014.

Ray’s program received $1.2 million in federal funding this year, down from $5 million in 2017. Florida leads the nation in enrollment in the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

With less money, Ray can afford to pay only 59 navigators across the state this year, down from 152 a year ago. With fewer navigators, much of the group’s counseling is done by phone instead of in person. That complicates their job, she said, because it is much easier to talk with and show marketplace customers in person when looking at dozens of health plans with different costs and benefits.

Open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act plans began Nov. 1 and will run until Dec. 15 for the 39 states covered by the federal exchange. The other exchanges — run by states — typically extend the deadline until the end of December or into January.

Nationwide, navigator groups are working to make up for the loss of federal funding to ensure that they can help people make sense of their health insurance options.

In South Carolina, the Palmetto Project has transformed into the state’s first nonprofit insurance agency. Several of its former federally funded navigators are now licensed insurance agents. In their new roles, they are paid a commission on sales and don’t have to follow Trump administration rules that encourage navigators to talk to customers about short-term plans with limited benefits. The agents can also help customers enroll in Medicaid, Medicare and off-exchange plans.

The Community Council of Greater Dallas, which was funded last year to help with enrollment in 56 counties, has raised money from private donors to continue serving seven counties around Dallas. But it has 25 fewer navigators, so consumers seeking help must wait three days on average, compared with less than a day last year. In Texas, 211 of 254 counties have no federally paid navigators.

In Wisconsin, the organization Covering Wisconsin has raised millions of dollars from cities, counties, local United Way chapters and the state Medicaid agency, to make up for the federal cuts. Even still, it will be able to provide in-person assistance in only eight counties around Milwaukee and Madison. Twenty other counties are served by telephone.

The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved is relying totally on volunteers to help consumers with in-person and telephone assistance. In the past year, the association was able to use government funding to pay about 20 navigators.

Nationally, nearly 800 counties served by the federal marketplace will not have any federally funded navigators this fall — up from 127 counties in 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Federal officials said they were not providing money for navigators in Iowa, Montana or New Hampshire because no organizations applied in those states.

Nearly 12 million people across the country — including nearly 9 million on the federal exchange — enrolled in Affordable Care Act plans for 2018.

At the halfway point in the six-week enrollment period, 2.4 million people chose a plans for the 2019 coverage year on, the federal health insurance exchange, according to data released last week by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. That compares with nearly 2.8 million people who selected their coverage through the exchange during the first 25 days last year.

Among states with the largest enrollment drops are Pennsylvania (down 25 percent from last year), Missouri (25 percent) and Ohio (20 percent).

The annual enrollment count is closely followed in part because 2019 is the first year since the marketplace plans began in 2014 that Americans won’t be fined for not having coverage.

But consumer experts think the lack of navigator funding could end up having a bigger impact on enrollment. Caroline Gomez-Tom, navigator program manager of Covering Wisconsin, said the end of the individual mandate penalty has been a “nonissue” for people seeking coverage.

“Some folks mention it, but at the end of the day they still walk away with health coverage,” she said. “The ability to have coverage at affordable prices outweighs the penalty being gone because people still see health care insurance as important to have.”

Consumers generally have more choice of plans for 2019 as more companies enter the individual market and existing plans expand service areas. Also, premiums are dropping in some areas, and where they are rising the rate of increase is among the lowest in several years.

Katrina McGivern, director of policy and public affairs for the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, said people in rural areas of the state will have the most difficulty getting help as a result of funding cuts.

After five years of experience, she said, she is hopeful that people are figuring out how to do it on their own. Still, she said, there are always “people who need assistance to get through it.”

Tribune News Service