Health care

Obamacare count: 100,000 so far, 3,500 in Florida

 
 
A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it is commonly called, passed in March 2010, went into effect Tuesday at 8am EST. Heavy Internet traffic and system problems plagued the launch of the new health insurance exchanges Tuesday morning. Consumers attempting to log on were met with an error message early Tuesday due to an overload of Internet traffic.
A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it is commonly called, passed in March 2010, went into effect Tuesday at 8am EST. Heavy Internet traffic and system problems plagued the launch of the new health insurance exchanges Tuesday morning. Consumers attempting to log on were met with an error message early Tuesday due to an overload of Internet traffic.
KAREN BLEIER / AFP/Getty Images

dchang@MiamiHerald.com

More than 106,000 eligible people — including about 3,500 in Florida — selected a health insurance plan in October using the federal- and state-based marketplaces that are key to the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Health Human Services reported on Wednesday.

The newly released figures for the first month of open enrollment are a far cry from the goal of seven million Americans that the White House wants covered through the Health Insurance Marketplace by March 31, though the Obama administration has said it expects sign ups to increase dramatically in the coming months.

The data also revealed that many Americans are still having trouble accessing the federally run marketplace through the healthcare.gov website, which has been beset with technical problems since its launch on Oct. 1.

Roughly one in four individuals who selected a health plan, or 26,794 people, did so using healthcare.gov, which serves 36 states, including Florida, while the great majority of people who signed up, 79,391, used the state-based websites that serve 14 states and the District of Columbia.

Included in the number of people who selected a plan are those who have paid the first month’s premium to activate their plan, and those who have not. The enrollment data did not include demographic details about applicants, such as age and ethnicity.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, speaking at a telephone briefing Wednesday to announce the enrollment numbers, said more detailed information on the number of Americans who have actually purchased a plan will be coming by Dec. 15, the deadline for individuals to buy health insurance that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

Sebelius said the data released on Wednesday tells her two things.

“First,’’ she said, “in every part of our country Americans are very interested in healthcare coverage … [and] even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling.’’

That second point is key to enrollment because problems with healthcare.gov have prevented many people from creating the personal accounts necessary to begin enrollment, complete an application for financial aid, shop for a health plan and purchase coverage.

Teams of computer technicians, software engineers, design experts and management consultants have been laboring daily to improve healthcare.gov’s capacity and functionality, Sebelius said, and she repeated the Obama administration’s promise that the website would be working smoothly for “the vast majority of Americans” by the end of November.

Critics pounced on the numbers, calling them “abysmal” and evidence that President Obama’s signature domestic legislation is a failure that ought to be repealed.

“There are more people who want to see the Marlins play the Pirates on a Tuesday night” than signed up for the program in Florida, said State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio issued a written statement calling for repeal of the healthcare law.

“There is a better way to help people obtain high quality health care and control costs,’’ Rubio said in the statement, “but Obamacare is not it.’’

Proponents of the healthcare reform law, however, countered that the number of individuals signing up for health plans in October has outpaced enrollment launches for other entitlement programs on the state and federal levels.

Sebelius noted that Massachusetts signed up only 123 people in the first month of the Bay State’s healthcare reform law, which was enacted in 2006 and mandated that nearly every resident obtain a state-government-regulated minimum level of health insurance.

“People tend to do research, consider options, talk things over with family before making a purchase,’’ she said. “We have every reason to expect more people will enroll.’’

U.S. Rep Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, urged critics to give the healthcare law more time.

“There are going to be needed corrections,’’ she said, “but that was also in the case in 1935 when we rolled out Social Security, and in 1965 when we rolled out Medicare. ... Anything that is going to be a systemic change won’t be easy.’’

According to the data released Wednesday, more than 1.5 million people applied for health insurance coverage through the exchanges from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2.

Of those, more than 975,000 applied for and received an eligibility determination, but have not yet selected a plan. Another 396,000 have been determined or assessed eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor and disabled, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP.

Florida, home to an estimated 3.8 million uninsured residents younger than age 65, led all states using healthcare.gov in the number of applications completed (67,366), number of individuals applying for coverage (123,870), and the number of plans selected (3,571).

About 12,800 Floridians were determined or assessed eligible for Medicaid through healthcare.gov, though the final determination on eligibility for the program rests with state agencies.

The HHS data also showed that only about one third of those Americans who were eligible to enroll in a marketplace plan also qualified for financial aid to pay their monthly premiums, which is given to those individuals and families with annual incomes up to four times the federal poverty level ($45,960 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four).

On the ground in South Florida, counselors and outreach workers said their efforts have helped sign up hundreds of residents for health insurance through the marketplace.

Community Health of South Florida, which received an HHS grant to hire 20 outreach workers for Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, reported its staff had counseled close to 1,000 individuals and enrolled about 200 people in health plans using the federally run website, the toll-free number and paper applications.

Tiffani Helberg, a spokeswoman for the center, said an additional 250 people were enrolled in Medicaid and Florida KidCare, which is available to children of low-income families but not their parents.

With the help of a health center counselor, Miami-Dade residents Maidel and Heriberto Puig enrolled in a silver-level HMO health plan through healthcare.gov while their child qualified for CHIP.

The Puigs were uninsured and qualified for a $7,464 annual subsidy ($622 a month). And even with a higher rate, because one of them smokes, the Puigs were able to find plan with a monthly premium of $19.95 a month.

“We’re very satisfied with our plan,’’ Heriberto Puig said. “The government really helped me and my wife, a lot, and it’s a complete insurance plan. I can go to a primary care doctor and it’s a $5 copay. For a specialist, it’s $15, and for pharmaceuticals it’s zero.’’

Like many people who chose a plan in October, though, the Puigs decided to defer paying their first month’s premium until receiving the plan documents from the insurer.

“This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.”

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