Tens of millions of dollars in outreach grants are set to be awarded next week in a massive campaign to persuade uninsured Californians to buy coverage as a linchpin in the looming health care overhaul.
Applicants include community-based nonprofits, social service centers, huge labor unions and school districts - including Los Angeles Unified School District and Service Employees International Union, one of the state's largest health care unions.
The awarding of two-year grants, from $250,000 to $1 million apiece, will push a nationwide health care program from blackboard planning into a vital new phase of face-to-face contact with families.
"It's one of the most critical components of getting our message out," said Dana Howard, spokesman for Covered California, the state health insurance exchange that is helping to implement the overhaul by creating a marketplace for comparing coverage plans.
The goal is to create a network of established, trusted groups in communities statewide, not only to promote coverage but to answer questions, discuss options and show how subsidies can cut premiums for families of four earning up to $92,000, according to Howard.
"This is a very personal matter," Howard said of health insurance. "People are not going to just listen to a radio spot or a TV spot and jump in and say, 'Oh yeah, give me coverage.' They're going to want to learn more about it."
Dozens of California community groups and public agencies are expected to receive a total of $30 million in federal money through grants awarded by Covered California.
Requests far exceed the cash available: More than 200 groups have submitted applications that total nearly $129 million.
Critics say that public skepticism is likely to rise if outreach grants of up to $1 million are awarded to controversial or politically powerful groups, such as Planned Parenthood or labor unions.
"I think people's antennas will be up," said Sally Pipes, president of the conservative Pacific Research Institute.
Both Planned Parenthood and SEIU said their health care workers were natural fits for the outreach effort.
Planned Parenthood has provided preventive health services for decades, is trusted, and serves 64,000 people a month who are eligible for Medi-Cal or insurance offered through Covered California, said Kathy Kneer, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.
"The reality is, they're walking into a health center door every day," Kneer said of potential new buyers of insurance. "It makes sense to take advantage of that."
Covered California's awareness campaign will be part of a much larger publicity effort - including $80 million for advertising - to lay groundwork for enrollment in October for insurance policies to take effect in January.
"Enrolling millions of Californians is the key to the success of Obamacare," said Daniel Zingale, a vice president of California Endowment, a private health care foundation which is not a grant applicant.
"It will fail if it's just government reaching down to people," he said. "It has to be community-based organizations and Californians themselves driving the success of Obamacare on the ground."
About 5.3 million Californians are uninsured, including about 2.6 million who could qualify for subsidies under the national program.
The outreach campaign particularly hopes to reach locations, communities or businesses with large numbers of uninsured people - such as colleges, rural areas, immigrant communities and entities catering to tourists or families needing child care.
Covered California encouraged a wide range of groups to submit grant applications - including schools, health care providers, labor unions, business associations, Indian tribes, faith-based organizations, local government agencies and nonprofit, consumer or community organizations.
Ninety percent of the grant money will target outreach to individuals, 10 percent to small businesses.
Some of the more familiar grant applicants, perhaps, include the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, United Ways of California, California NAACP, California Restaurant Association, California Planned Parenthood Education Fund, and the University of California regents.
Face-to-face contacts are expected to range from door-knocking to hosting community seminars, speaking on local or ethnic television shows, and distributing fliers at health fairs, festivals and sporting events.
Darcel Lee of California Black Health Network said her group would partner with 14 other organizations in a broad-based drive to include town hall meetings, small-group discussions, live plays to be performed on college campuses, and perhaps joint appearances with members of the Legislative Black Caucus. The coalition has requested $1 million.
"We felt that education and outreach to our community was particularly important since we know that a disproportionate share of African Americans either are underinsured or uninsured," Lee said. "So we think this is a wonderful opportunity."
Covered California will award grants based partly on the scope of each outreach proposal and the size of the geographic area to be served.
Applications are evaluated by a Covered California team encompassing management, program, procurement and technical staff. Scores are based on a point system that considers an applicant's work plan, costs, tactics, qualifications, references, staffing and prior success at outreach.
Grant recipients will be required to submit monthly, quarterly and annual reports documenting their performance and expenditures.
Legislation creating Covered California in 2010 gave the agency broad authority to withhold documents related to contractors, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Howard said that once the $30 million in outreach grants have been awarded, any fiscal or performance reports filed by recipients will be released as public records.
But applications filed in competing for the grants will be withheld because they contain detailed staffing and other projections that could be used by groups seeking similar contracts in the future, Howard said.
Call Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @jwsanders55.