For the next 10 weeks, it doesn’t matter whether you’re powwowing with the police chief, chitchatting with church leaders or socializing with school teachers, if you’re a hospital leader, you need to be talking about insurance coverage.

That was one of the main takeaways from a webcast Thursday afternoon, hosted by the Department of Health & Human Services. Open enrollment in the health insurance exchanges ends March 31, and millions of Americans are still sitting on the sidelines debating whether to sign up for a plan or take the penalty.

According to a Commonwealth Fund analysis of HHS data, enrollment surged in December, with 1.8 million people picking plans in the marketplaces that month. All told, 2.15 million people selected plans between Oct. 1 and Dec. 28, which is 31 percent of the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of 7 million enrollees by March. Ten states met or exceeded their target enrollments by the end of December, while eight states fell just short. Roughly 24 percent of people who selected plans are in that key young and invincible category of ages 18 to 34. And 44 percent described their health as “very good” or “excellent,” all seemingly good signs.

As “trusted voices” in their communities, hospitals have the obligation to educate patients about coverage, said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

For Judy Rich, CEO of Tucson (Ariz.) Medical Center, that message has come through loud and clear. The community hospital has seen uncompensated care climb in recent years; more than 1 million Arizonans are uninsured. At the end of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers voted to expand Medicaid, but not without some controversy. Meanwhile, TMC officials are looking to partner with everyone from insurers to competitors in order to spread the word about access to coverage.

“Outreach is critical,” Rich said during the webcast, adding that efforts do not have to include large budget campaigns. “We should talk about it everywhere we go, every conversation that we’re in, because there’s such a lack of education on this issue. Don’t let the politics around the Affordable Care Act keep you from going here.”

TMC has done everything from training 11 certified application counselors, to holding special enrollment events on Saturdays, and partnering with a slew of community organizations to put together a $200,000 ad campaign. Their combined efforts have reached 50,000 people in southern Arizona, with TMC handling about 400 incoming phone calls requesting information on coverage.

St. John Providence Health System in Michigan collaborated with the local library for use of its 150 computers to help enroll people. As the message of enrollment starts to resonate, hospital leaders also need to be patient and prepared for dealing with throngs of confused consumers. Cynthia Taueg, R.N., vice president of ambulatory and community health services at St. John, pointed out that one visitor to the Ascension-affiliated system had 56 different health plans from which to choose.

And don’t exhale too hard once April comes around. Hospital leaders should continue pushing state lawmakers to expand Medicaid if they haven’t already done so, executives said during the HHS webcast. Plus, another open enrollment period will come around this fall. Whatever the unique challenges are that you might be facing in your service area, collaboration seems to be the “secret sauce,” said Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association.

“This is a long-term journey,” he said. “The first window is up until March 31st, but we’re back at it again with open enrollment in the fall, and pressing until we get to everybody who has the opportunity to be covered. Certainly the nation’s hospitals are committed to doing that.”