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Insurance Marketplace Makes Its Debut As Heavy Interest Bogs Down Website

Despite federal shutdown, officials say new health exchange will move forward smoothly

insurance outreach
Community health and insurance company officials distribute information during a health-insurance marketplace kickoff held yesterday in the parking lot of a Walgreens in East Orange.

A stumbling start to the online health insurance marketplace yesterday didn’t deter those helping people enroll for insurance from predicting that the process will work smoothly in coming days.

The primary way to access the federally operated marketplace – the website – was inaccessible for much of the day, overwhelmed by the large-scale interest in the site. Federal officials said the problems weren’t related to the shutdown of the federal government that began yesterday.

Some people bypassed the website and instead reached out to local healthcare nonprofits yesterday, asking for help understanding the enrollment process. Officials with these organizations said they were taking down contact information and would be scheduling appointments to help residents enroll in the coming days, when they expect the site to be working more smoothly.

Republican members of Congress have proposed that short-term federal spending be linked to a one-year delay in the insurance marketplace and other provisions of the 2010 Afforable Care Act, including a mandate that individuals purchase insurance.

However, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have rejected linking spending with the healthcare law.

The marketplace is intended to be a one-stop shop for residents who aren’t insured by their employer to buy insurance and learn whether they are eligible for tax credits to subsidize the coverage. Residents are supposed to be able to apply for coverage through the website, by phone, by mail or in person.

Among those providing assistance to New Jerseyans looking to enroll in person are the five nonprofit organizations providing federally funded ”navigators”, including the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties Inc.

FoodBank spokeswoman Marion Lynch said the organization has opened two of the nine sites that it’s planning for “navigators” to help residents. Those sites didn’t draw much interest yesterday, but the organization received many phone calls about the marketplace, Lynch said.

Lynch said the organization is scheduling appointments with those who called.

“We want to avoid having people wait in line,” she said. “Today is day one.”

Lynch emphasized that while yesterday was the start of the six-month open enrollment period, insurance purchased through the marketplace won’t start until January 1.

Lynch said staff members had limited access to the marketplace website yesterday morning, but the site was inaccessible in the afternoon.

“It’s a problem today but it’s not going to be a problem moving forward,” she said.

The marketplace launch was marked by a series of rallies and health fairs around the state, which drew a varied crowd, including uninsured residents who are eager to enroll and people with insurance who wanted to know more about their options.

At a marketplace “kickoff” event in the parking lot of a Walgreens in East Orange, community health and insurance company officials shared information with residents. The event also drew state Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex and Passaic) and Dr. Jaime Torres, the regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Gill said the launch of the marketplace would prove to be a historic day for the millions of uninsuredAmericans.

“You know Obamacare must be good for us if they want to close down the federal government so that we won’t know to sign up,” Gill told a crowd of roughly 50 people. .

She expressed disappointment that the state is not operating its own marketplace, as the ACA allowed. Gov. Chris Christie cited concerns about the potential cost and a lack of answers from federal officials in vetoing a state-based exchange. Gill noted that this cost the state federal funding to conduct a public awareness campaign about the marketplace.

“What may be an obstacle is going to be an opportunity,” Gill said, predicting that community activists and others interested in healthcare would spread the word.

“We are a community that knows how to get the message out – we don’t care who thinks they’re going to stand in the doorway of our success,” Gill said. “We have to show that you can try to keep us down but you cannot keep us out of Obamacare.”

Torres said the difficulty accessing the site was a sign of “great curiosity by people who are ready to enroll and other people who are just curious. I think that we’re working on that right now and that’s to be expected,” adding that there are six months for residents to enroll through the marketplace.

Torres downplayed the impact of the government shutdown, saying that the marketplace funding is mandatory.

“, the enrollment and all the education will continue, because this is mandatory funding that had been already paid for” through the ACA, Torres said.

Donnette Williams will be one of the people at the front lines of enrolling residents as a newly certified application counselor with Newark Community Health Centers, which serve as federally qualified health centers – a primary source of care for low-income residents. She said center staff members were writing down the contact information for residents to schedule appointments at the centers “to have a little more privacy to get enrolled.”

East Orange resident Elsie Jeanty, an unemployed nursing assistant, said she was interested in getting new insurance, adding that she currently relies on charity care and is concerned that she would have to go to the emergency room if she became ill because she doesn’t have access to a primary care doctor.

“That’s why you have to get something in your hand,” Jeanty said, referring to an insurance card.

Scotch Plains resident Original Dixon has been a substitute teacher for East Orange public schools for roughly 30 years and is uninsured. However, she is primarily concerned about the potential cost of either the insurance or the penalties she might have to pay if she remains uninsured. The penalties are scheduled to increase from the greater of $95 or 1 percent of income in 2014 to the greater of $695 or 2.5 percent of income in 2016.

“I’m concerned about the penalty from the government and how much the premiums will be per month,” Dixon said. “I’m very concerned about being able to pick it up monthly, because my income is still unpredictable.”

The tax credits targettoward those with income between 138 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, which currently amounts to between $15,856 and $45,960 for a single resident and between $32,499 and $94,200 for a family of four. The open enrollment period will last until March 31, 2014.

New Jersey activists opposed to the ACA issued a call yesterday for the law’s provisions to be delayed, similar to the position of congressional Republicans.

Daryn Iwicki, director of Americans for Prosperity’s New Jersey chapter, said in a statement that the law was a disaster. “While sympathizers with this administration tell us that federal subsidies will take care of (the ACA’s) exorbitant costs, they seem to forget where that money comes from: all of us, the taxpayer!” Iwicki said. “Whether or not it's reflected on our insurance bill, we're all paying for this train wreck of a law."

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