The new Health Insurance Marketplace has stumbled out of starting gate, with seven days of performance ranging from slow service to no service on the healthcare.gov website.
But the people who are trying to help people sign up for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act say the start isn’t as important as the finish in what they see as a marathon.
“We are still hearing that it is difficult to get on the website, so I think that until that glitch is fixed we will not have a lot of take-up,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “I actually think that the sheer volume of people looking for information and trying to get onto the site is a testament as to how many people are looking for help with getting healthcare coverage.”
Cooperative Ministries earned the federal grant to help people in the Midlands navigate the online marketplace, and it brought in the S.C. Progressive Network and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council as partners. But the navigators had to come up with other plans for the first week.
“We’re setting up different presentations we can make,” said Tim Liszewski of the Progressive Network. “I’m going to be going out to small businesses to let them know what’s possible for them and for their employees. ... We’re going to make the best of what’s happening (with the website). I’m reminding people it doesn’t have to be done in one day.”
The pertinent deadline is Dec. 15, which is when applications must be in to have coverage by Jan. 1. The Affordable Care Act requires nearly everyone to have health insurance in 2014 or face a penalty. With a three-month grace period for the penalty, the new insurance marketplace will remain open through March 31.
South Carolina has about 750,000 uninsured residents. But many of those people won’t face penalties in 2014 because individuals making less than about $14,500 in states that turned down Medicaid expansion – including South Carolina – are exempt for the insurance requirement.
About half of the people who called the Progressive Network to ask about health insurance last week found out they didn’t qualify for Medicaid or for insurance subsidies because South Carolina turned down the Medicaid expansion.
“It’s painful telling people who call to buy insurance through the marketplace that they are too poor to qualify for subsidies,” said Brett Bursey, executive director of the Progressive Network. “If you make below $11,490 a year, you have to pay full price, thousands of dollars, for a policy that would cost several hundred dollars if you were just a bit better off.”
In addition to the uninsured, many low- to middle-income people who currently have individual insurance policies likely will find better deals on the new marketplace. State officials expect between 500,000 and 1 million state residents will sign up by March 31. Not many got the process done in the first week.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refused Monday to provide numbers of policies sold. But through Friday, healthcare.gov had received 8.6 million unique visitors. The toll-free call center for the marketplace had received 406,000 calls. In fact, HHS suggested that people could call (800) 318-2596 and do everything over the phone, though it’s more difficult to make comparisons over the phone.
Few people last week were able to stay on the balky website long enough to buy insurance. It still was running very slowly, if at all, on Monday.
“We did have some individual product purchases, but there has been more information gathering than actual purchasing of health insurance,” said Patti Embry-Tautenhan, a spokeswoman for BlueCross BlueShield of S.C. “We believe that is a good thing — we want people to get the information they need to make good decisions. ... Once the federal government site becomes fully functional we anticipate more people will actually purchase insurance.”
At Richland Library’s main branch on Assembly Street, staff members were trained to help people on healthcare.gov. But few people have asked for help, according to library spokeswoman Padgett Mozingo.
She suspects many people still aren’t well-informed about the need to buy insurance and how to do it. The library system has scheduled forums on the insurance marketplace 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Richland Library Northeast at 7490 Parklane Road and 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Richland Library Southeast at 7421 Garners Ferry Road.
Advocates are prepared for a wave of interest, whenever it comes.
“I expect we will see lots of people apply, once we can get past the confusion,” Berkowitz said.