NEPTUNE TOWNSHIP - The open enrollment window for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act closes more quickly that many of us would like - December 15. If finding coverage that you actually can afford seems impossible, Fulfill is standing by to help sort it out.

Carlos Rodriguez, Foodbank Executive Dir., by Rosetta Key Townsquare Media
Carlos Rodriguez, Foodbank Executive Director (Rosetta Key Townsquare Media NJ)

The center on Route 66 in Neptune, formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, has broadened its role for on-staff navigators to include help in finding, and filing for, Obamacare coverage.

For Executive Director Carlos Rodriguez, it's a service that informs Fulfill's core mission of keeping needy families nutritiously fed.

"It actually helps put food on the table, just as much as our continued focus on food distribution," Rodriguez said.

"We're certified navigators. We can help families figure out which plan they're eligible for. And if they're not eligible, of if they have too little income to be exempt from some of the requirements, we can walk them through the enrollment process."

Federal subsidies are still available this year, he added, and so are penalties for lacking coverage - upwards of $2,000 per family, depending on household income and the length of time that someone has been uninsured.

"We want to be sure that you have what you need to keep your family healthy," Rodriguez added, "and that you don't wind up with high unpaid medical bills, no health insurance, and depending on a food pantry to make ends meet."

So there is a positive ripple effect that starts with the navigators in Neptune, as families take advantage of affordable coverage and reorient their budgets, becoming more self sufficient, and easing the crunch on the hundreds of food pantries that Fulfill sustainsm allowing the food supply to last longer and reach farther.

Early in his tenure, Rodriguez introduced the navigator system to help low-income individuals file their yearly federal tax forms. Before the expansion into health coverage assistance, he oversaw the re-branding of the venerable FoodBank. All of it, he said, stems from listening to people.

"Our neighbors told us why they found themselves in food pantries," he recalled. "Many are working, and they have no insurance. We didn't set out to be health insurance enrollers. But it's a service that can help about 10 percent of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, through the words of our neighbors and partners, who said, 'Hey, if they had this, maybe we wouldn't be at a pantry, and maybe they could manage some of their health conditions.'"

Good health, in financial reach, Rodriguez reasons, helps families to rebuild confidence, and a stronger economic framework can hep pull them away from the downward spiral of need.

Fulfill is also collecting turkeys and other holiday food items, through the end of December, for distribution throughout its network. Items can be donated at the headquarters in Neptune, or at the JBJ Soul Kitchen in Toms River, and spots in Belmar, Eatontown, Long Branch, Freehold, Asbury Park, Marlboro and Sea Girt. See more about it here.

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