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Florida expects plenty of questions as health exchanges come online

Published Jul. 5, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The federal government surprised big employers by delaying a key provision of the health care law, but that doesn't mean the law is going away entirely.

A nationwide marketing blitz aimed to help millions of people understand the coming changes and sign up for health care is already under way. The increased demand for information is likely to trickle down to state agencies and local insurance companies.

"This is complicated stuff, and there could be a lot of confusion out there," said Craig Thomas, chief strategy marketing officer at Florida Blue. "So we feel like anything we can do to help consumers understand their choices and actually enroll and get coverage is helpful."

Florida Blue will offer a variety of plans on the health exchange that the federal government will operate in Florida. Starting Oct. 1, people will be able to go online, apply for tax subsidies and purchase insurance policies.

Until then, the federal government is working on educating people about the options and their responsibilities. Individuals who don't purchase insurance in 2014 could face a $95 tax penalty.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began its marketing push last week by unveiling a redesigned website to provide information about the exchanges. About 7 million Americans are expected to obtain coverage through the exchanges, also known as insurance marketplaces.

That alternative description is what troubles the head of Florida Health Choices, a state-based exchange that calls itself "Florida's insurance marketplace." The state exchange predates the federal law and will be available only to small businesses when it launches in the spring.

Florida Health Choices CEO Rose Naff worries that people searching the Internet for the federal health exchange could end up on the Florida Health Choices website. So her home page now has a section called "Pathfinder Compass" to direct people to the right place after they answer a few questions.

For some, such as small businesses that don't qualify for tax subsidies, Florida Health Choices may be the right resource. Others will be redirected to the federal government or Medicaid.

"We're not necessarily the wrong place to shop, but it depends on the employer's circumstances and the individual's circumstances," Naff said.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, charged with enrolling families in Medicaid or low-cost insurance programs for children, has trained the staff in its call centers to answer questions about the Affordable Care Act. The agency is coordinating with state and federal entities in preparation for an increase in Medicaid-related questions.

The federal government already has opened six call centers to answer questions about the health exchanges. They are all based at facilities that already house Medicare customer service centers, including one in Tampa.

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Several insurers have indicated they would like to participate in the federal health exchange for Florida, but the list is not finalized. In addition to Florida Blue, paperwork was submitted by other major insurers such as Humana and Cigna.

Florida Blue is hiring telemarketers and opening retail centers on top of the 11 it already has across the state. Additional centers are planned for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Duval counties.

"We're trying to a.) simplify this for folks, and b.) have Internet tools and call centers and walk-in centers available to answer questions that people may have," Thomas said.


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