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Diverse Stakeholders Team up to Support Health Insurance Enrollment

Shortened sign-up period and fewer supports trigger advocates’ concerns

maura collinsgru
Maura Collinsgru, healthcare program director for New Jersey Citizen Action

A diverse coalition of community groups, healthcare and industry advocates, and corporate leaders have teamed up to try and cut through the confusion about healthcare reform and connect hundreds of thousands of eligible New Jerseyans to federally subsidized insurance plans.

Members of the Cover NJ Coalition gathered at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick on Monday to announce their campaign to ensure the public is aware that they have less time to sign up this year — and less assistance in navigating what can be a confusing system.

Some coalition members are also hosting town halls and other enrollment events at libraries and other public facilities and the Cover NJ website has tools to connect users with counselors who can help them sign up. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurance company, is also getting involved with grassroots outreach at malls, restaurants, and other community gathering spots.

Shorter enrollment period

The open enrollment period for commercial health plans sold on the Affordable Care Act marketplace — which cover some 369,000 Garden State residents, 70 percent of whom get help in paying for these policies — begins November 1 and will last only six weeks, half as long as in the past. In order to be covered in 2018, all policyholders or eligible individuals must renew their current plans or sign up for something else during this period.

The process is further complicated by the fact that federal funding for public outreach around the program was cut by 90 percent and New Jersey lost 60 percent of the money for community groups that help consumers navigate the system. Patient advocates said these reductions come at a particularly bad time, given the widespread confusion over the impact of ongoing efforts to repeal and replace the ACA, or Obamacare.

In addition, the Trump administration also cut “cost-sharing” funding — including $166 million for New Jersey — that had gone to help insurance companies offset some of the subsidies they provide to lower-income marketplace customers. While the 145,000 Garden State residents who benefit from these savings will still be eligible in 2018, insurance companies said they were forced to raise their prices overall to cover the additional costs. (At Horizon, marketplace policies will increase an average of 24 percent.)

Sign up soon

News of these subsidy cuts is also confusing for those trying to understand what options are available and what they can afford, the advocates said, prompting them to join forces to get the word out about the urgency of signing up in the coming weeks.

“Consumers need to know they can still get financial assistance as in years past if they qualify and free enrollment assistance to help select the plan that is right for them,” said Maura Collinsgru, healthcare program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a leader in the Cover NJ effort.

Other members include the New Jersey Hospital Association, New Jersey Association of Health Plans, Planned Parenthood, New Jersey Primary Care Association, library groups in South Brunswick and Elizabeth and a half-dozen social-service and community organizations, some of which have served as funded navigators in the past.

“In an uncertain healthcare landscape, it is important for all of our healthcare delivery and education partners to remain united with the purpose of providing quality, affordable care and coverage for our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-NJ), a longtime supporter of the ACA, who joined the event on what happened to be his birthday. “I look forward to working with our partners to help enroll as many Jerseyans with quality healthcare coverage as possible.”

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield — one of three companies selling policies on the marketplace, along with AmeriHealth and a division of Oscar — has also stepped in to fill the gap. The company, which insures 70 percent of marketplace customers, will particularly focus on Hispanic residents, one in five of whom lack insurance; overall, eight percent of state residents are uninsured.

Enrollment kiosks at large malls

Earlier this month, Horizon announced it would set up enrollment kiosks at several large malls, host community forums at Hispanic-owned restaurants in a half-dozen cities with large Spanish-speaking populations, and meet with new and existing members for “Café Con Leche sessions” at local coffee shops, diners, and community centers. It also operates Horizon Connect, a retail center at the East Gate Square Shopping Center in Moorestown, and dispatches vans with trained counselors into key communities.

In addition, the company launched a Spanish-language enrollment website and dedicated a team of Spanish speakers to work with customers and businesses.

“We are putting unprecedented resources into this effort through community-based outreach, like opening service centers in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods and enhancing all of our communications to break down language barriers that may interfere with Hispanic New Jerseyans connecting with assistance and obtaining health coverage,” said Michael J. Considine, a Horizon vice president who oversees the market.

While the effort is focused on those who have signed up for marketplace policies in the past — and an estimated 44,000 New Jersey residents who are likely eligible, but have never enrolled — counselors with many of these programs can also help people get covered under other programs, like Medicaid and Medicare, if they qualify.

Medicaid — which enrolls new patients throughout the year — now covers 1.8 million Garden State residents, including 500,000 who were admitted after the program was expanded under the ACA. Medicare, which covers nearly 1.4 million New Jersey seniors, has an open-enrollment period that began earlier this month and runs through December 7.

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