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Archive for Thursday, October 31, 2013

Local Obamacare enrollment still slowed by glitches with website

October 31, 2013

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Dwight Welch was determined to get health insurance.

Like many Americans, he went to HealthCare.gov in early October but, because of technical glitches, couldn't log in. He waited a couple weeks and tried again. He was finally able to create an account and investigate the new insurance options.

"I did something that no one thought was possible. I signed up on HealthCare.gov!" he wrote on Facebook.

Welch, 41, a campus minister at Kansas University, discovered he had more than 50 plans to choose from. So he's taking some time to mull his options.

Many local residents haven't even gotten into the process as far as Welch has. The local effort to enroll people in the new insurance marketplace, a major piece of the Affordable Care Act, over its first month has been slowed by technical issues with HealthCare.gov. Because of those problems, the Obama administration this week pushed back the deadline for when Americans are required to carry health insurance, moving it from Feb. 15 to March 31. People who want their coverage to begin Jan. 1 still have to enroll by Dec. 15.

The federal government has yet to release numbers on how many people have been able to sign up for insurance in the 36 states — Kansas is one of them — where it operates the marketplace.

While local outreach workers haven't had any luck enrolling people in the new insurance options, they say they have been able to educate dozens of community members about the health care law.

Amanda Kong, an insurance marketplace navigator at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said she almost got her first person signed up for coverage this week, but the website crashed when the customer tried to make a payment.

"The next day the website was entirely down," Kong said. "There are still a lot of glitches with the website. Some days it works, and other days it doesn't."

Still, she says she and the other two navigators at the health department have been fielding an increasing number of calls from members of the public interested in finding out more about the law. Queries have ranged from "Are the marketplace, the exchange and Obamacare the same thing?" (the government originally referred to the marketplace as the exchange; Obamacare is a nickname for the Affordable Care Act) to "Why do I have to pay a penalty if I can't afford insurance?" (Americans who don't make enough money to file income taxes or who would have to spend more than 8 percent of their income on premiums are exempt from the insurance mandate).

The navigator at Health Care Access, a local safety net health clinic, has taken 17 calls from people inquiring about the new health care law, according to executive director Shelly Wakeman. Of those, 15 fell below 100 percent of the federal poverty level and thus will not qualify for government subsidies on the marketplace; people in that category were supposed to be covered by the expansion of Medicaid, but the state of Kansas declined to participate. Wong, from the health department, has also talked to several people who fall into that gap; she refers them to Health Care Access and another Lawrence safety net clinic, Heartland Community Health Center, since they will likely remain uninsured.

While Welch, the campus minister, has yet to purchase health coverage, it appears that, after seven years of going without it, he will soon be able to. He tried to sign up for private insurance earlier this year but was denied because of a pre-existing condition (Obamacare prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against customers based on health history). He had been offered insurance through his denomination, but it would have cost $500 a month. He now expects to pay a monthly rate of $100 to $150, after tax credits, for insurance on the marketplace.

Welch said that because he badly wants to obtain coverage, he wasn't turned off by the technical glitches at HealthCare.gov.

"I'll admit, I kind of came into this thinking, 'Hey, I desire health insurance and want to be able to afford it.' I was someone who was initially supportive of the idea that everybody should be able to get health care coverage and that should be a given in our society," he said. "When I was younger, I didn't consider buying it. Now I'm getting closer to middle age and have had to go to the doctor a few times. And now insurance is accessible."

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