After two previous visits to Miami since September, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius returned Friday in a third-time’s-the-charm effort to promote the Affordable Care Act.
Florida, with its significant number of Hispanics and the second highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation, has been a favorite backdrop for Sebelius to hammer home the Obama administration’s message of affordable healthcare for all.
On Friday, she touted the retooled federal online insurance exchange at healthcare.gov and highlighted individual success stories plucked from Miami-Dade, the county with the state’s greatest number of insured.
“We know the situation is serious here in Florida — 3.5 million uninsured residents, 581,000 here in the Miami area,’’ Sebelius said, “and there’s a lot of opportunity for people to take advantage of a new expanded plan.’’
Seated with three South Florida residents inside a roped-off wing of Miami-Dade’s Main Library, surrounded by TV cameras and reporters, Sebelius launched a living-room-style conversation about the consumers’ experience buying insurance on healthcare.gov.
“I hope you all will become part of the effort to spread the word,’’ she said.
Marcelo Cantos, 22, said he qualified for federal financial aid to pay his premium and found a health plan for about $7 a month, with a low deductible. He said he had been paying about $160 a month for employer-sponsored insurance.
Mick Erlandson, 26, from Miami, said he shopped on the website in October for himself and his parents, who have pre-existing conditions, and that he found affordable plans for everyone at about half their previous costs.
“I was really excited about that,’’ Erlandson said, noting that he found a comprehensive plan for $47 a month.
Previously, Erlandson was paying about $110 a month for an individual plan, “but it covered virtually nothing,’’ he said.
Nancy Lewe of Fort Lauderdale, who owns an online marketing agency, said her insurance premiums had risen to about $800 a month — with no additional benefits and a $1,000 deductible. But she found “a much better policy’’ on the federal exchange, saving her $600 a month, with a $250 deductible. She also bought a dental plan.
“I’ve been waiting for this for years,’’ Lewe said of the healthcare law that allowed her to buy lower-priced insurance.
Emphasizing other benefits of the health law, Sebelius noted the high level of competition in the Miami area, where residents can choose from 137 qualified health plans on the federal exchange.
“That competition, I think, has produced some incredibly good rates,’’ she said. She said a family of four with an annual income of about $50,000 would qualify for financial aid to buy a full-coverage plan for “as little as $72 a month. That is pretty unheard of.’’
Sebelius touched on another element of the health law: expanding Medicaid eligibility for all Americans earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level, or about $15,000 a year for an individual.
The Florida Legislature has refused the federal government’s offer to pay for 100 percent of Medicaid expansion for the first three years, beginning 2014, and no less than 90 percent thereafter — a total about $50 billion over a decade.
But Sebelius said many Republican state leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, are still considering expansion.
“Medicaid eligibility and Medicaid expansion is still very much a conversation we are having with governors,’’ she said. “Gov. Scott has indicated his support and willingness to move forward with Medicaid expansion. That would affect just under 2 million people in Florida.’’
Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, issued a statement that ducked the question of whether the governor currently supports Medicaid expansion, but delivered a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration’s renewed campaign to promote the health law.
“I'm surprised Sec. Sebelius has time to get involved in state politics when she has so much work to do to fix the President's broken promise that if Floridians liked their healthcare plans they could keep them,’’ Sellers’ statement read.
Scott endorsed Medicaid expansion in February, but a plan crafted by the state senate failed to pass amid strong opposition from the state house — and the governor has said little in support of expansion since.
Sebelius visited Miami on the heels of this week’s HHS announcement that about 110,000 eligible Americans selected a health plan in November using the federal online exchange at healthcare.gov — more than four times the rate for October.
Florida led the way, with 17,908 people signing up since Oct. 1. Nationally, a total of more than 364,000 eligible Americans have selected a health plan using the federal- and state-based online insurance exchanges, according to government estimates.
HHS has not disclosed demographic data for enrollees, but Miami-Dade is home to a significant number of Hispanics, a group crucial to President Barack Obama’s re-election success in 2012 and now a key to the success of his health law.
“Almost seven million Hispanics are uninsured’’ nationwide, Sebelius said.
They’re also more likely to be young — nearly half of Hispanics are under 26 years old, according to the U.S. Census.
Young and healthy people will be crucial to the success of insurance pools to offset the costs of older, sicker patients.
The Obama administration has reached out to Hispanics, Sebelius said, though she acknowledged the effort has been slowed by the technical problems that had plagued the federal online exchange. The Spanish-language website, cuidadodesalud.com, had a soft launch last week.
“It has been slow to come online,’’ Sebelius acknowledged, “and in large part that was an intentional decision to make sure that until the site produced a different consumer experience. We didn’t want to invite people to get frustrated all over again.’’