Insurance advocates spread word on Pa. enrollment

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HARRISBURG – With enrollment scheduled to begin Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s federally run health insurance exchange, advocates are ramping up efforts to spread the word and teach consumers how to shop in the online marketplaces that are a key element of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.


Among those engaging in the effort are advocacy organizations that support the law, health care professionals and not-for-profit agencies that routinely help the poor get public assistance.


Education campaigns are focused on going door-to-door canvassing in high poverty areas, setting up offices in community health centers and holding question-and-answer sessions at public libraries and elsewhere.


Their work will be that much more prominent since Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration has remained on the sidelines during the process even as other governors take charge of the enrollment effort.


The Corbett administration spent virtually nothing to market it and received nothing from the federal government to market it, either, in contrast to other states that have embraced it.


Many still people don’t know about it, actual insurance coverage won’t take effect until Jan. 1 and the first enrollment period will last until March 31. So many who plan to assist people in getting coverage – such as 50 organizations that run 250 federally qualified community health centers in 48 counties – don’t necessarily expect the gates to come crashing down immediately.


“Oct. 1 is an important day for when the door opens, but people don’t need to rush through it,” said Jim Willshier, director of policy for the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, which is helping distribute federal grants to the health centers to train people to help with enrollment.


Organizations in Pennsylvania received nearly $7 million to hire and train application counselors and navigators – much of it went to the health centers – to help people understand how to shop for insurance in the exchange and what their various options for coverage are.


The exchange is designed to make it simple for the uninsured to shop for private health insurance by setting up a direct comparison among plans and defraying the cost with a tax credit for people whose income qualifies.


The targets are mostly the working poor, young people who are disengaged or those who gave up their insurance because of the cost.


Whether it will work remains to be seen. The federal website, healthcare.gov, where many people will sign up and shop for coverage, could have glitches early on. The people who are hired and trained to be application counselors and navigators also may struggle to understand the process or guide people.


And rates may rise if only the sickest people seek coverage.


Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania’s estimated 1.3 million uninsured residents – the group Families USA estimates it to be nearly 900,000 – will be eligible to get a tax credit that helps lower the cost of an individual or family health insurance plan through the exchange.


The Pennsylvania Medical Society is writing a step-by-step guide that doctors can provide to patients and the public, while the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania distributed an enrollment and outreach guidebook to its member hospitals to use with their patients and in their communities. Insurance agents who deal in individual health policies also may be able to help.


To date, Corbett – an opponent of the 2010 federal health care law – has been virtually silent on the exchange and declined to take a role in running it.


Meanwhile, governors in some states are forcefully running, marketing and branding their exchanges to try to ensure they are successful.


Illinois’ is named “Get Covered Illinois” while California has Covered California and Kentucky has Kynect.


Some states, including Colorado and Minnesota, are underwriting TV or radio campaigns to reach a mass audience.


Antoinette Kraus, director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a group of about 60 organizations that is helping lead the enrollment effort in Pennsylvania, noted that the Corbett administration has not sought to block efforts to educate or enroll people, as some states have actively done.


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