State Urged To Use Federal Funds to Spread Word About Obamacare Coverage

Advocates say many more would sign up for health insurance but remain uninformed and even unaware of Affordable Care Act

Jaye Silver testifies about his work enrolling people through a program in which military veterans provide ACA insurance assistance.
Those working on the front lines to enroll New Jersey residents in Affordable Care Act health insurance said yesterday that additional outreach by the state government would help their efforts.

Funds available for outreach have become a contentious issue, with healthcare advocates warning that the state could lose a $7.67 million federal grant later this month if it doesn’t come up with a plan for using the grant that is acceptable to the federal government.

These same advocates say many uninsured residents don’t know about options available to them under the ACA, a position backed up by a representative of a food bank and a military veteran who have been helping people complete insurance applications. The two were among those testifying yesterday at an Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee hearing, during which the panel passed a resolution calling on the state to spend the federal grant on ACA outreach efforts.

The state received the grant in February 2012 to fund a state-operated insurance exchange where residents and small business owners could buy coverage and learn whether they were eligible for federal subsidies.

Gov. Chris Christie instead opted to have a federally operated insurance marketplace, leaving state and federal officials to negotiate over how the money could be spent. While neither state nor federal officials have provided details of the negotiations, the plans the state submitted for using the money have yet to win federal approval.

An example of how the money could be spent was given by Barbara Scholz of
FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties Inc., one of five organizations that were awarded federal Navigator grants to help enroll people for ACA coverage. Scholz said it would be “wonderful” if the funds were spent on a public-awareness campaign, adding that many people are unaware of the effect of the ACA on insurance availability.

“We can sit down one-on-one with clients – we make appointments to do that,” Scholz said. “But then, there are so many people out there that don’t know about it – we don’t have the budget” to reach them through a broader awareness campaign.

The food bank has sent “navigators” to more than 150 events such as health fairs and programs at local libraries.

“We can reach 50 or 100 people at these events, but there are thousands out there that we cannot reach,” said Scholz, who noted that her organization applied for the Navigator program because high medical bills add to food insecurity faced by many New Jersey residents.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done to make sure that all people in New Jersey know about this,” Scholz said.

Jaye Silver, another insurance application counselor, has been enrolling residents through a program sponsored by the New Jersey Hospital Association and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in which military veterans provide ACA insurance assistance.

“The word is getting out – would we like it to be a lot faster? Absolutely,” said Silver, an Air Force veteran. He added that any support from legislators would be appreciated: “We’re doing the best that we can and any graciousness that you folks could bestow – I mean, if you have a 55-gallon drum with some pixie dust that you could throw our way – by all means, please do.”

Assembly Chairman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) expressed hope that the federal government would still spend the money in the state “one way or another.” Conaway, a primary care doctor, said he regularly treats patients who recently lost insurance and live in fear of unexpected medical expenses.

U.S. Health and Human Services regional director Dr. Jaime Torres noted that the ACA was designed to be more generous toward states that operated their own exchanges.

The ACA’s language is “very friendly for those states who run their own marketplace,” Torres said, adding that New Jersey could still decide to have its own exchange.

Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden and Gloucester) expressed concern about the ACA provision that requires people to pay a penalty for not having insurance. The law requires people to have insurance or have a penalty added to their tax return. The penalty will be the higher amount of $95 or 1 percent of income. The penalty will rise to $695, or 2.5 percent of income, in 2016.

Fuentes said New Jersey residents could be “held hostage” if the state doesn’t spend money to increase awareness of the ACA insurance options.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s health coverage.