Thursday, December 14, 2017
Health

Helping America get health coverage

NEW PORT RICHEY — Ray Clark is a part-time maintenance worker with neither health insurance nor any idea how he's supposed to buy it next year.

Online insurance exchanges? Nobody has ever talked to him about those.

"I haven't heard from anyone," said Clark, 50, who earns $8.50 an hour.

He may start hearing from someone soon.

With the online insurance program required by the Affordable Care Act set to go live on Oct. 1, Washington-based nonprofit Enroll America will begin its "Get Covered, America!" marketing campaign on Thursday. Community health centers in Tampa Bay should soon learn whether they will get millions in federal grants to assist residents. And insurance companies could soon start setting up shop near lower-income neighborhoods, where many residents may be buying insurance for the first time.

"There's going to be an incredible need to get information out to lots and lots of people," said Rachel Klein, executive director of Enroll America. "Most people who will benefit from this new coverage opportunity have no idea it's coming."

The exchanges, which federal officials re-branded "online marketplaces," function much like the travel website Expedia, featuring search engines to help consumers compare plans. The program, aimed at people who can't get affordable insurance through an employer, will also allow consumers to figure out if they qualify for up to $10,000 a year in subsidies to their premiums.

People can log on from their home computers and make the decision on their own. But advocates and industry experts say there will be plenty of questions — and a general unawareness — about the exchanges.

The federal government is providing grants to a number of groups to help people sort through their options. Among those organizations are the nation's community health centers, which provide medical services to a large number of uninsured and low-income patients.

In Florida, the centers qualify for a total of $8.1 million to buy computers and hire and train staffers to teach people about the new marketplace, show them how the website works and help them determine if they qualify for tax credits.

In Pasco County, for instance, Premier Community HealthCare Group has applied for a nearly $135,000 grant to hire two specialists who will talk with the center's patients. About 40 percent of the 18,000 people who visited Premier's clinics last year had no insurance.

But the harder audience will be those who have never set foot in a health center. The new hires will set up booths at community health fairs or other events and maybe even team up with churches, said Cheryl Pollock, business development director.

"Talking about a marketplace and these other buzzwords is foreign," said Pollock. "We have to really drill it down into layman's terms."

The federal government will require training courses for community health centers as well as for so-called "navigators," self-employed people or groups that have applied for federal money to help residents. Private insurance brokers will also receive training on how the online exchanges work, said Carol Taylor, a member of the Florida Association of Health Underwriters.

"The thing is so complicated that the consumer is really going to need somebody who knows the industry," said Taylor, who predicts insurance brokers still have a role to play on the exchanges.

Also filling the information gap? The insurance companies.

Cigna and Florida Blue, for instance, are both about to begin alerting their individual policyholders about the exchanges, where many of them may qualify for help paying their premiums.

Jon Urbanek, senior vice president of Florida Blue, said the insurer also plans to open small, "strategically placed" retail centers. Some may be near lower-income neighborhoods, he said, to attract first-time customers.

"It's one thing to say we're talking to existing policy holders," said Urbanek. "The real key is going to markets we've never talked to."

He acknowledged that carriers with insurance companies aren't neutral observers. "In the end, we want people to make the right decision," he said. "We need to earn the right to tell them why we're the best."

Because the federal government has kept the curtain drawn on its exchanges, it isn't clear how many issues — from online security to pricing to usability — will be resolved. Bob Hurley, a senior vice president of sales and operations at eHealthInsurance, a longtime private online insurance exchange, said he believes the government may have just as much to learn about the program as consumers.

"There is going to be a fair amount of confusion," he said. "Hopefully there's sufficient resources in the industry, including us, to help people through this process."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

Comments
City Council sinks deal to alter ownership of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg

City Council sinks deal to alter ownership of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — After months of tense negotiations and weeks of political impasse, the City Council on Thursday derailed a proposal that would have changed the ownership structure of the city’s largest hospital, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.The 5-...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Florida hospitals call for more funding in effort to address looming doctor shortage

Florida hospitals call for more funding in effort to address looming doctor shortage

The number of doctors practicing in Florida has not kept up with the state’s surging population growth, and more money is needed to recruit and keep them here, hospital leaders said Wednesday.The shortage is particularly acute in four speciality area...
Published: 12/13/17
An overlooked epidemic: Older Americans taking too many unneeded drugs

An overlooked epidemic: Older Americans taking too many unneeded drugs

Consider it America’s other prescription drug epidemic.For decades, experts have warned that older Americans are taking too many unnecessary drugs, often prescribed by multiple doctors, for dubious or unknown reasons. Researchers estimate that 25 per...
Published: 12/13/17
How is Florida’s health? Not so great, report says

How is Florida’s health? Not so great, report says

Florida slightly improved its national standing this year, rising from 36th to 32nd overall in the annual America’s Health Rankings report. But the takeaway for the nation’s third-largest state is that it has a long way to go in many important health...
Published: 12/12/17
Driven by demand, Planned Parenthood opens second clinic in Tampa

Driven by demand, Planned Parenthood opens second clinic in Tampa

The floor-to-ceiling glass windows are heavily tinted and the inside is hidden behind rows of curtains. Security cameras monitor every corner, and only patients with an appointment and valid identification can pass through the intentionally cramped e...
Published: 12/12/17
Video: Jimmy Kimmel holds his baby son, post-heart surgery, in emotional health-care monologue

Video: Jimmy Kimmel holds his baby son, post-heart surgery, in emotional health-care monologue

Jimmy Kimmel was absent from his ABC late-night show last week while his 8-month-old son, Billy, recovered from his second heart surgery. Ever since Billy was born with a heart defect and required immediate surgery, Kimmel has become an outspoken adv...
Published: 12/12/17
Record numbers are signing up for Obamacare in Florida as enrollment period draws to a close

Record numbers are signing up for Obamacare in Florida as enrollment period draws to a close

With just four days left to enroll for health insurance on the federal exchange, advocates for the Affordable Care Act say Florida is headed for a record-breaking year. In week five of the six-week open enrollment period, about 823,180 people signed ...
Published: 12/12/17
A boy shares the pain of being bullied - inspiring thousands to show him love (w/video)

A boy shares the pain of being bullied - inspiring thousands to show him love (w/video)

While fighting back tears, young Keaton Jones couldn’t stop asking one question: Why?"Just out of curiosity, why do they bully? What’s the point of it?" he asks his mother while in the passenger seat of a parked car. "Why do you find joy in taking in...
Published: 12/10/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Legalization of marijuana for adults poses problems for people dealing with teens

Legalization of marijuana for adults poses problems for people dealing with teens

WESTMINSTER, Calif. — After Yarly Raygoza attended the drug prevention program at the Boys & Girls Club here last year, she used what she learned to talk a few friends out of using marijuana.The 14-year-old took the class again this year but worries ...
Published: 12/10/17
Millions gained coverage since Obamacare, but many are worse off as premiums soar

Millions gained coverage since Obamacare, but many are worse off as premiums soar

As open enrollment for Affordable Care Act coverage nears the deadline of Dec. 15, and Florida once again leads all states using the federal exchange at healthcare.gov, Heidi and Richard Reiter sit at the kitchen table at their Davie home and struggl...
Published: 12/10/17