Miami-Dade County

U.S. health boss: Florida at crossroads for Obamacare signup

(L) Marisel Losa, CEO of Health Council of South Florida welcomes Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell (C) along with Karen Egozi, CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida (R) during a visit to FIU for a panel discussion on the rollout of the 2015 enrollment period for health insurance under Obamacare on Monday, Nov. 17, 2014.
(L) Marisel Losa, CEO of Health Council of South Florida welcomes Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell (C) along with Karen Egozi, CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida (R) during a visit to FIU for a panel discussion on the rollout of the 2015 enrollment period for health insurance under Obamacare on Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

Florida will play a crucial role in national efforts to sign people up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Monday during an appearance at Florida International University.

“Florida actually has a very large uninsured population and so it’s a place where many of the people we're trying to reach are. In addition, though, Florida led the nation in terms of those enrolling in the federal marketplace last year,” Burwell said during a panel discussion with local healthcare advocates and nonprofit groups at FIU’s College of Law in West Miami-Dade.

Nearly a million Floridians signed up for coverage in 2014. Enrollment for 2015 coverage began Saturday.

HHS is planning radio and TV ads in South Florida and around the country to raise awareness about enrollment, especially among Hispanics, Burwell added.

More than 100,000 people submitted an application using healthcare.gov or CuidadodeSalud.gov on the first day of enrollment, according to HHS. Figures were not available for Florida alone.

During the panel discussion, Burwell also touched on a related healthcare issue: whether Florida should accept federal funds to expand Medicaid eligibility, a priority for the Obama administration.

An estimated 760,000 Floridians are caught in the so-called “coverage gap” with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low for subsidies under the health law.

Florida is one of 21 states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid. Two other states are debating their options.

Gov. Rick Scott was initially hostile to expansion before reversing his position, but the Republican-dominated state Legislature continues to oppose it.

Burwell said the administration “welcomed the opportunity” to work with state leaders on the issue.

“It's a good health decision and it’s a good economic decision for individuals as well as states,” Burwell said.

At a separate appearance in Tampa earlier on Monday, Burwell also addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to the health law that could result in consumers in Florida and 35 other states losing their federal subsidies, Health News Florida reported.

“Right now what I think is important for everyone to know is they are signing up [and] when you go in you can find your premiums, and you can find your assistance and your subsidy, that is all going forward,” Burwell said, according to Health News Florida. “There is no change.”

A decision in the case, King v. Burwell, is not expected until spring at the earliest.

For those eligible for ACA coverage, interest in signing up has been muted when compared to last year.

Organizers of four enrollment events around Miami-Dade County on Saturday reported signing up about 40 people.

“We need to educate, educate, educate,” said panelist Karen Basha Egozi, CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, which received an $871,000 federal grant to raise awareness among consumers.

Also speaking on the panel were Nicholas Duran of Enroll America, Marisel Losa of the Health Council of South Florida and Annie Neasman of the Jessie Trice Community Health Center. All four groups are advocating for people to sign up for 2015 coverage or providing assistance to those interested. Federally licensed “navigators” are available to help consumers explore their options under the health law.

Consumers who enrolled last year may also need help this time around, said Neasman of the Jessie Trice center.

Premium prices may rise for existing plans and people could get a serious sticker shock come January if they don't shop around for the best plan now, Neasman said.

“Tell your neighbors, tell your friends,” she said to about 30 people who attended the event.

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

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