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Bill Calls for Public Awareness Campaign for NJ's Health Benefit Exchange

Although feds are building exchange, funds for outreach are tight, leaving the job to state.

"Build it and they will come" is not an acceptable attitude when the topic of discussion is New Jersey's health benefit exchange, scheduled to launch October 1. Residents need to know that the online marketplace is up and running so they can start pricing policies and seeing if they qualify for subsidies -- essential information when the exchange actually opens its virtual doors to paying customers January 1, 2014.

Making sure the word gets out is the goal of a bill (A-3878/S-2673) now advancing in the legislature.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) and Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex and Passaic), the measure would require the state Department of Banking and Insurance to lead an outreach campaign to inform the public about the exchange.

The department would be charged with developing a strategy for publicizing the services, eligibility requirements, and enrollment procedures of the exchange; provide information on the DOBI website; and prepare materials to be disseminated throughout the state, including through state, county and municipal offices.

Conaway, a doctor, said enrolling more residents in health insurance will increase their access to care and reduce the cost of care.

“We know if that’s done it’s better for the overall health status of individuals and for society,” Conaway said. He cited the example of patients who had heart attacks because their hypertension went undiagnosed or who had renal failure after their diabetes went untreated.

The bill doesn’t identify a funding source for the campaign, instead encouraging the state to apply for federal and private grants. Conaway also said yesterday that the state could consider tapping the funds intended to compensate hospitals for charity care, adding that he believes the amount of that money needed will decline as a result of more residents being insured.

The Rutgers Center for State Health Policy has estimated that 362,000 more state residents would purchase individual health coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act, including roughly 200,000 who would receive subsidies.

Residents with income between the poverty line and 400 percent of the poverty line will be eligible for subsidies, which amounts to between $11,490 and $45,960 for a single person and between $23,550 and $94,200 for a family of four.

But some in the healthcare community believe the statewide outreach campaign on its own will not be adequate.

Additional funding for nonprofit “navigators” to assist residents with the exchange is needed, according to Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit think tank.

“I’m supportive of the bill but the state needs to do more,” Castro said, adding that the bill doesn’t provide funding for “community-based organizations actually knocking on doors.”

The federal government has a role to play in publicizing the exchange as well.

Gov. Chris Christie opted to have the feds run New Jersey’s exchange instead of having the state take the lead, but it’s not clear how much federal money will be available for a public awareness campaign. So far, the federal government has set aside $1.5 million for nonprofit groups to reach out to residents, a figure that healthcare advocates said is inadequate

. In fact, the paucity of federal funds was one of the reasons that Conaway and Gill decided to sponsor their legislation.

Massachusetts officials have cited the importance of a public awareness campaign in reducing that state’s percentage of residents who are uninsured to 2 percent of the population, Conaway noted.

“I want to see New Jersey achieve that kind of success for New Jerseyans,” he said.

Conaway said he envisions posters and brochures about the exchange being available throughout state offices where members of the public come into contact with government workers. “You can’t expect the program to do its job if people don’t know about it,” he said.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Essex, Morris and Passaic) opposed the bill, saying that it should also inform the public about the “higher taxes, reduced choices, and harm it will do to our state.”

Residents who choose not to purchase insurance as a result of the ACA’s individual mandate will have to pay a penalty. This will rise from the higher of $95 or 1 percent of income in 2014 to the higher of $695 or 2.5 percent of income in 2016.

“If there are carrots in this law, then we should tell them what the sticks are, the sticks are pretty heavy,” Webber said.

Conaway rejected the criticism, saying it was “illogical” to require the state to highlight the penalties to residents who are in need of insurance and would benefit from the subsidies.

The bill was passed on a party-line vote, with all 45 votes in favor coming from Democrats and all 32 opposed from Republicans. The Senate version has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee.

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