Health Care

Nearly half a million sign up for Obamacare in first week

Dian Y. Alarcon, left, Florida Field Coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, meets with volunteers as they wait to assist consumers signing up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 15, 2014 at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah.
Dian Y. Alarcon, left, Florida Field Coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, meets with volunteers as they wait to assist consumers signing up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 15, 2014 at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

About 462,000 Americans selected a healthcare plan and more than 1 million applied for financial aid to buy coverage during the first week of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act’s federally run insurance exchange, government officials reported Wednesday.

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Department Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said enrollment efforts in the 37 states, including Florida, that use the federal exchange were “off to a solid start.’’

“But we have a lot of work to do,’’ she said.

More than 1 million consumers contacted the exchange call center from the opening day of enrollment on Nov. 15 through Nov. 21, Burwell reported, while the website at healthcare.gov received about 3.7 million users.

HHS did not break down plan selection or other data by state, nor did the agency’s report include enrollment information for the 14 state-based insurance exchanges that also opened on Nov. 15.

The report also did not include data on Medicaid enrollment, which eligible consumers can sign up for through the exchange.

Among the 462,000 Americans who selected a plan through the federally-run exchange, nearly half, or 48 percent, are new consumers, Burwell said. The remaining 52 percent are renewing coverage from last year.

HHS did not track how many of those returning consumers changed plans, or whether they will pay more or less in premiums.

But Burwell urged consumers who enrolled last year to revisit their plan selections for 2015, or risk being automatically re-enrolled in the same plan at the same subsidy amount if they do not act by Dec. 15.

“We are strongly encouraging everyone to come back in,” Burwell said.

Consumer advocates also recommend that those consumers shop on the exchange to avoid paying higher premiums. Insurers are allowed to raise rates and change benefits from year to year.

While Burwell said she was encouraged by the opening week snapshot, the data reflect one potentially troubling sign: The number of Hispanic consumers appears to be lagging in comparison with other groups, even though Hispanics account for a disproportionate share of the uninsured.

The federal exchange’s call center received about 100,000 calls to Spanish-speaking representatives, according to the HHS report, and even fewer — about 95,700 consumers — visited the Spanish-language website at CuidadoDeSalud.gov.

One explanation for the low numbers of consumers using Spanish-language resources may be that many Hispanics are bilingual and prefer to use English, said Jodi Ray, director of the Florida Covering Kids & Families program at the University of South Florida, which received a $5.38 million “navigator” grant from HHS to help consumers sign up for coverage.

“Just because they’re not using the Spanish-language website doesn’t mean we’re not adequately signing up Hispanics,’’ she said.

Burwell said during the conference call that Hispanic consumers often prefer in-person assistance when enrolling for coverage.

She said HHS is focusing on Spanish-language media for outreach, and she noted new changes designed to make it easier for Hispanics to sign up — including expanding the number of documents that can be used for proof of identification, and streamlining the mobile device application system.

“This is a population that we have found actually has more concentration of mobile use,’’ Burwell said.

HHS expects that 9.1 million Americans will sign up for coverage through the exchange during open enrollment, which closes on Feb. 15.

About 6.7 million eligible Americans currently have insurance through the exchange. That number was revised down from 7.3 million last week after Burwell said dental plans had been wrongly included in the estimate. She called Tuesday for a “culture of increased transparency” at HHS.

Bloomberg News first reported the erroneous tally, which helped the Obama administration meet a Congressional Budget Office projection of 7 million enrollees for 2014.

Florida led the nation in sign-ups last year, with 983,000.

As counselors prepare for an expected rush of consumers to sign up by Dec. 15, the deadline for coverage to take effect on Jan. 1, Ray said her program’s navigators have consistently encountered one problem: Consumers often can’t remember the user names and passwords for their healthcare.gov accounts.

“It takes time and delays the whole process when we have to call in and reset their accounts,” Ray said. “We’d like to spend most of the appointment looking at plans and benefits.”

“The best thing consumers can do,’’ she said, “is make sure they can get into their account before they come see a navigator.’

Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.

This article was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Federal Marketplace Snapshot

November 15 – November 21

Plan Selections

462,125

New consumers

48 percent

Consumers renewing coverage

52 percent

Applications Submitted

1,032,129

Call Center Volume

1,069,378

Average Call Center Wait Time

3:05 minutes

Calls with Spanish Speaking Representative

101,864

Average Wait for Spanish Speaking Rep

10 seconds

HealthCare.gov Users

3,741,725

CuidadoDeSalud.gov Users

95,730

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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