Health Care

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visits Miami to plug healthcare enrollment and Medicaid expansion

 

pborns@MiamiHerald.com

For the fifth time since September, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited Miami on Saturday to urge Floridians to sign up for health plans before the Affordable Care Act’s approaching deadline at midnight on Monday.

Six million have already signed up for health coverage by the White House’s count. Sebelius’ appearance at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church was part of a nation-wide drive to bring the enrollment figure as close as possible to the seven million target set by the Obama administration last year.

Standing with state Rep. Cynthia Stafford at the church where an ACA enrollment event was in progress, Sebelius repeated the messages of her past visits to Florida -- over a dozen since last June -- stressing the importance of affordable healthcare for all, and chastising Florida legislators for not expanding Medicaid, the joint state-federal program for the poor.

“Twenty three percent of Floridians have no health insurance. That’s about 3.5 million people, about 581,000 right here in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area,” Sebelius said, stressing that many can qualify for subsidies that make the health plans affordable. “A family of four making $50,000 a year in the Miami area can find a plan with tax credits for as little as $72 a month,” she said.

She introduced Vernon Twyne of Cutler Bay, 57, who had been unable to afford insurance to cover the cost of the medical imaging his wife needed for injuries she sustained in a car accident. With their marketplace subsidy, the couple was able to get a health plan covering both of them for less than $200 a month.

Of 36 states relying on the federal exchange, Florida has been a success story with more than 440,000 people enrolled. Collectively, they have received $1.17 billion in tax credits since the marketplace opened, an average of $3,000 per applicant according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

But the state’s refusal thus far to expand Medicaid means the health law’s goal of covering everyone is incomplete.

About 1.9 million people throughout the state, and 317,000 in the Miami area, would be eligible for Medicaid if it were expanded, Sebelius said. Because the federal government offered to pay 100 percent of the expansion cost for the first three years, she estimated not moving forward costs Florida $18 million a day in funds that would be coming to the state to cover its lowest wage earners.

“Taxpayers, workers and communities are bearing that cost,” she said.

Saturday’s visit concluded a long and often embattled campaign for Sebelius in South Florida. In November, she appeared at North Shore Medical Center in the wake of the troubled launch of the online federal marketplace, acknowledging the testing of the website “was not sufficient.” The site crashed while she was there.

In December, she returned, touting the success of the retooled site at the main branch of Miami-Dade Library and congratulating Florida for being the most enrolled state on Healthcare.gov -- at that point, a mere 17,908 people.

Standing with North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau in February, she urged young people to get covered on National Youth Enrollment Day. Although 300,000 Floridians had by then signed up for health plans, only 23 percent were 18 to 34. For the marketplace to work and keep insurance rates low, it needs a diversified risk pool of younger, healthier people to offset those more likely to get sick.

On Monday at midnight, the health law’s first open enrollment period will end. Those who start their applications on or before that date will have until April 15 to complete them. Those who don’t will have to wait until November to enroll in health coverage that starts in 2015.

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