For those living without health insurance, a place to turn for answers

All at once John Manno found himself unemployed, without health insurance, and in excruciating pain. Manno, who lives in Ashland, is a freelance musician and rental property owner who has had sporadic health insurance. Just before his back gave out, he found himself completely priced out of the options he saw. Then came the diagnosis: a $100,000 surgery to address his herniated disk and a lot of questions about what insurance options he had, if any.

John Manno of Ashland, a freelance musician and rental property owner, found himself without health insurance at a time when he was recommended for major back surgery.

John ended up on the phone with Covering Wisconsin, a statewide program of UW-Madison Extension, and Health Coverage Navigator Tina Marshalek who helped him through his decisions for coverage.

“I was at the clinic here in Ashland on the phone with her,” Manno said, describing the process of sorting out his options and when his coverage could start. “It was wonderful, I’m so grateful.”

Manno has been a contracted harp player for a number of years and was doing so at an Ashland restaurant until the pandemic temporarily closed the eatery. He didn’t think much of dropping his health insurance premiums when he was on pandemic-related unemployment. That was until his herniated disk started causing neurological damage.

“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and the doctors had never seen anything like it,” Manno said. “I needed surgery right away. It would have been permanent nerve damage otherwise.”

Manno had successful surgery in October 2022 and is back playing harp at the restaurant and lifting his instrument without assistance. “I’m back to normal,” he said.

Navigating the health insurance options

“There are a lot of dense health insurance rules and regulations. They can make getting coverage feel a bit overwhelming,” said Marshalek. “Navigators know the tips and tricks that make finding a plan and enrolling easier. We also teach consumers as we go, making sure everyone we work with understands what options they have and how those options meet their financial or health needs.”

Covering Wisconsin, our state’s federally certified and state-licensed Health Insurance Navigator agency, helps anyone in Wisconsin secure health insurance coverage, seek timely care, and navigate the healthcare system. They also help residents with all types of health insurance questions, billing concerns and appeals, and transitions to new plans and coverages. Navigators are well versed in the technical aspects of insurance and mentor clients to know what to look for. Covering Wisconsin subcontracts with a variety of community organizations to allow for Navigators to be placed around the state, living and working in the communities they serve.

Extension’s Health & Being Institute includes Covering Wisconsin as part of a portfolio of programs benefiting people across Wisconsin. From nutrition education, informing local food systems, advocating for patients, improving physical and mental health, Extension works with individuals, communities, Tribes, nonprofits and others to lift up all voices and provide avenues that make the healthy choice the easy choice. See more at

The need for navigating health insurance

The number of consumers who seek Covering Wisconsin’s health insurance enrollment help continues to increase each year, from around 3,000 in 2020 to more than 7,000 now. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that those who have searched for coverage themselves wished they had gotten assistance from a Navigator to help them in the process.

Statewide more than 280,000 residents are uninsured, 83% of whom would qualify for medical assistance programs such as Medicaid, BadgerCare, or on the federal Marketplace. Having health insurance can improve an individual’s overall health and reduce financial risks.

“Health insurance can smooth out the rough edges when you think about paying for medical coverage,” said Allison Espeseth, Director of Covering Wisconsin. “We provide free, unbiased help for anyone in Wisconsin who is trying to sort through  changing rules, changing plans, costs, and unique terminology of health insurance.”

Getting and keeping health insurance is not a simple process. This is especially true for those who don’t have access to coverage through an employer, such as those who are self-employed, farmers, small business owners, or lower income. When needed medical care gets put off or bills pile up, going without health insurance can lead to deterioration of good health and financial security.
Since 2003, Covering Wisconsin has provided free, impartial education and assistance to Wisconsin residents. Health Insurance Navigators stationed across the state support consumers’ health insurance needs, such as finding coverage to fit their health care situation, budget, provider preferences, and other needs. This includes commercial plans made available through the Health Insurance Marketplace, as well as State of Wisconsin Medicaid and BadgerCare Plus coverage for those who meet eligibility criteria. Find more information and access services at