Excitement and apprehension buzzed through the crowd yesterday at a session on health insurance exchanges at the National Association of Community Health Centers' Community Health Institute.

Community health centers, as large providers for the uninsured, could be big beneficiaries of the expected enrollment of 7 million people into insurance on the exchanges, which the federal government calls marketplaces. But with less than 40 days left before enrollment begins, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about whether the exchanges will be fully operational and how well they will work.

Featured speaker Mandy Cohen, M.D., senior adviser to Marilyn Tavenner, CMS administrator, spoke with confidence about the launch of the health insurance marketplaces. "We're going to be ready," Cohen told the gathering in a downtown Chicago hotel.

Though her speech was targeted to community health center executive attendees, afterward Cohen offered some advice on what hospitals can do to prepare ahead of the Oct. 1 launch. As will be discussed in my September cover story for Hospitals & Health Networks, Cohen says that hospitals are expected to be key players in assisting the uninsured to get enrolled after the marketplaces debut.

"Get your staff trained on the new processes," Cohen told me in a brief interview. CMS recently posted information for training staff online, she says.

Preparing for the launch goes even beyond directly assisting enrollees, and hospital executives should get creative with their approaches. "Think outside the walls of your hospital," she suggests. For example, consider forging some sort of working relationship with the local library. Libraries are good resources for public access to computers, the preferred medium by CMS for people to apply for coverage on the exchange. Those who apply online will get an answer immediately regarding their qualification, not the case for paper applications.

Cohen says that given the amount of misinformation out there, clinicians should also know how the exchanges work because they are important conduits of information. Physicians and nurses are "key messengers" to the public, she says.

The American Hospital Association has made a huge push to help hospitals get ready, and is a good resource, Cohen says. As a part of that push, the AHA is holding a webcast Sept. 16 to offer guidance to hospital executives and their community partners.

She noted in her speech that a key but difficult-to-reach demographic the federal government is targeting are those ages 18 to 35. That means reaching out in new ways, such as advertising on stations like BET and MTV, not the typical stations for reaching a Medicare patient, she says.