In a last push to get as many New Jerseyans as possible signed up for health insurance through the federal marketplace before the March 31 deadline, a group of state legislators are offering their offices and staff to help with the enrollment effort.
The 12 lawmakers will distribute information to their constituents by email and through their district offices. The end of the month marks the end of the open enrollment period to sign up for insurance.
If people don’t have insurance by March 31, they will be required to pay a penalty on next year’s tax return. The penalty will be the greater amount of either $95 or 1 percent of the resident’s income. The next open enrollment period will begin on November 15.
New Jersey for Enroll America, the state chapter of a national nonprofit, is working with the legislators, all of whom are Democrats. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said the effort wasn’t political.
“We know that to have good healthcare, the best way to do it is to have good health insurance,” Weinberg said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 400,000 of 628,000 New Jersey residents who are able to purchase insurance through the marketplace are also eligible for tax credits to subsidize that purchase. Through January, 54,805 state residents had used the marketplace to choose a plan.
Subsidies are available for those with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the 2013 federal poverty guidelines, which amounts to between $23,550 and $94,200 for a family of four.
Weinberg said the lack of a state-based health exchange made additional outreach necessary. Gov. Chris Christie opted for a federal exchange instead of a state exchange, citing potential costs and a lack of answers from the federal government to questions posed by him and other Republican governors. He recently received criticism from some healthcare advocates for not spending a $7.67 million federal grant on marketing the program.
“We have a lot of uninsured folks here and we want to make our collective offices –which are in the districts, they are close to so many of our residents — available,” Weinberg said. “Not only will it provide good healthcare and preventive healthcare, but it will also help our budget because we will have less uninsured showing up in the emergency rooms of our hospitals.”
A Phone Call or Mouse Click Away
Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex and Passaic) said residents need to know that access to healthcare is as easy as a phone call or a visit to the online marketplace site.
“There is no public policy reason or legitimate political position that should keep the information of healthcare from our citizens,” said Gill, adding: “We are going to use all of the structures that we have in a creative and productive way, despite all of the obstacles that have been placed in our way, to make sure people are insured.
Nine of the legislators spoke at a February 25 press conference, where a navigator who has been working to enroll residents and a resident who recently received insurance joined them.
Navigator Kyle Williams of Mercer Street Friends said he’s helped 400 people enroll in insurance and hopes to reach 400 more by the deadline.
Rockaway real-estate agent Jean Scully said healthcare was all but inaccessible to her last year. Scully said she suffers hypertension and made a trip to the emergency room last summer due to chest pains. After being told that she wasn’t having a heart attack, she chose to leave the hospital despite needing more tests because she couldn’t afford the procedures.
“I really thought I was going to die, I thought my kids are going to find me dead in the morning. ,. But now I don’t have to do this ever again,” Scully said.. She recently had her first physical in 10 years.
“I never thought I would have health insurance again until I was old enough for Medicare, and I really didn’t think that I was going to live that long,” she said.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Burlington and Camden) said access to insurance allows residents to improve the quality of their lives.
“If you’re not worrying about your healthcare [or] your children’s healthcare, it’s easier to go out and find job and to take care of your family in a very meaningful way,” Greenwald said. “There’s so many ripple effects to this that are so critically important, we’re blessed to have this opportunity.”
New Jersey for Enroll America State Director Justine Ceserano said the legislative participation was the largest in the country. She described the lawmakers as “truly the trusted messengers in the communities that they represent.”
Ceserano said the information available at the legislators’ offices would be in both English and Spanish. “We urge every New Jersey resident to take advantage of this historic opportunity to get coverage by March 31,” she said.
The other legislators who joined the effort are Senators Robert M. Gordon (D-Bergen and Passaic); Linda R. Greenstein (D-Mercer and Middlesex); and Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), as well as Assembly members Daniel R. Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex), Upendra J. Chivukula (D-Middlesex and Somerset), Angel Fuentes (Camden and Gloucester), Nancy J. Pinkin (D-Middlesex), Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Hunterdon and Mercer