ST. PETERSBURG - Brittney Hines has been searching for affordable health insurance for years.
A monthly health insurance bill is just too expensive for the 25-year-old, who's studying forensic science at the ITT Technical Institute in St. Petersburg. She could really use it, though. Hines has severe scoliosis and asthma and could use a better pair of glasses, so she wouldn't have to hold her textbooks right up to her face when she reads. The St. Petersburg woman also might be able to afford the pain medication, inhalers and nebulizers that sometimes are unaffordable.
Hines signed up for primary care at the Pinellas County Health Department in May. Getting that basic level of care helps but doesn't cover all of her needs.
"I try to deal with it as much as I can," she said at the health department's St. Petersburg clinic. "It is a good jump from where I was a year ago."
Health care providers hope the health insurance marketplace, also known as health exchanges, being created as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, will help more people afford health insurance. Nationally, the marketplace is scheduled to open Oct. 1, and people are required to have health insurance by January.
Three Tampa-area health centers will receive nearly $700,000 in grant money to help people navigate the new system.
Hines said that she is trying, for the second time, to qualify for Medicaid, but that she would explore health insurance options through the marketplace if she is denied again.
"There are plenty of adults who want access to health care who just can't afford it, and these federal marketplaces are going to make it a little bit more affordable," said Joe Santini, business development director for Community Health Centers of Pinellas. "We're trying to engage them in this system so that they can have health care coverage."
Those who apply to the marketplace will be able to compare a range of health insurance options, find out whether they qualify for discounts or subsidies for private health insurance or free or low-cost coverage through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. People who don't get health insurance will be hit with tax penalties.
The Community Health Centers of Pinellas, Tampa Family Health Centers and the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services, which will receive the grants from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, will use the money for community outreach and to help people find health insurance through the marketplace.
Providing that help has been difficult because those working at local health clinics are still unclear how the health insurance marketplace will work.
"We do see people day in and day out who could benefit from it," said Maggie Hall, public information director for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. "But it's kind of a new and confusing system."
Many of the people the health care law is meant to help are even more confused than health-care workers.
"A lot of people are scared of it because they don't understand what's going on," said Teddy Hill, of St. Petersburg.
Hill, 23, is unemployed and doesn't have health insurance. He said it is hard because he ends up in the emergency room about three times a year and struggles with asthma.
"I believe everyone should have health insurance because accidents happen," he said. "Sometimes you are afraid to go to the emergency room because you can't afford it, and that puts your life in jeopardy."
In Florida, about 21 percent of people did not have health insurance in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tampa Health Family Centers serves about 70,000 patients, and nearly 58 percent of them do not have health insurance, according to Chief Financial Officer Edward Kucher. It is receiving $398,284, the third-largest award out of 46 grants awarded by HRSA.
Grants were awarded based on the proportion of uninsured patients and the projected cost for each organization's outreach and enrollment plan.
Community Health Centers of Pinellas serves about 36,000 patients, about 42 percent of whom have no health insurance, according to Santini. It is receiving a grant of $205,102.
Pinellas County is receiving an outreach and enrollment grant of $75,434.
The grants could be an important tool in getting more people signed up for health insurance.
"Because our staff are excited, I'm sure that enthusiasm will spread through the community we serve," Santini said. "Our staff knows what this means to our community populations."
More people will be able to afford visits to the doctor for routine health checks and to tackle minor health issues before they become more difficult - and expensive - to treat.
Not everyone is excited about having to sign up for health insurance.
Trace Woolverton, 38, of St. Petersburg, doesn't think the government should be able to require her to buy a plan.
"It's so expensive. We can't afford this," she said. "Nobody wants to be obligated right now."
Florida was one of 26 states that opted not to set up its own health exchange, so the federal government will be stepping in to do that here.
While local health centers have been letting patients know about the changes coming as a result of the federal health care law, they are ramping up efforts ahead of Florida's health exchange opening in October.
This month, the Obama administration delayed until 2015 the mandate that employers with 50 or more workers provide health insurance or face penalties. The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to delay the so-called individual mandate -- the part of the law requiring people to have health insurance - but is unlikely to pass in the Senate or survive a White House veto.
Community Health Centers of Pinellas will work with other nonprofit groups, chambers of commerce, local businesses, hospitals, religious groups and homeless outreach groups to spread the word about applying for health insurance.
Health workers hope the options and subsidies offered through the marketplace will be enough to help low-income families and individuals afford health insurance.
"I don't want to guess about it," Kucher said. "Still, this will provide a great benefit to help people sign up."