Philadelphia Inquirer

First Job Under New Health Law: Getting The Word Out

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Wednesday, October 1, 2013

By Chris Hepp, Inquirer Staff Writer

While the launching Tuesday of a key phase of the Affordable Care Act is set to revolutionize American health-insurance coverage, expect the campaign to move rather deliberately on Day One.

In fact, while the opening of online health-care markets will allow the uninsured or self-insured to begin purchasing coverage under what many call Obamacare, more energy is expected to be expended educating consumers than writing policies.

This makes sense, given that consumers will face a daunting array of options and have up to six months to make a choice.

"I don't think it is going to be as seismic as some people think it will be," said Maura Collingsgru, a health policy advocate with New Jersey Citizen Action, when asked how the first day might go.

John Dodds, executive director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, had similar expectations.

"We are hoping people are going to know about it," he said. "People are still fairly unaware at this point."

That reality seems to be driving the actions of many health care and advocacy groups that have chosen to use Tuesday as an opportunity to draw attention to the new law.

For instance, Independence Blue Cross (IBC) will hold rallies at SEPTA's Suburban, Market East, 69th Street, and 30th Street Stations. Teams of IBC experts will be on hand to educate consumers and enroll those who are ready.

Lourdes Health System in South Jersey has similar long-term efforts afoot.

"We have been making a concerted effort to accept every health fair and community event that comes our way for the next couple of months so that we can load people up to distribute materials on ACA," spokeswoman Carol Lynn Daly said.

At St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, officials estimated that the area they serve has about 20,000 uninsured residents, mostly in the southern portion of Bucks County.

Starting Tuesday, the hospital will send 10 experts into the community to help people buy insurance on the new exchange.

SEIU Healthcare Pa., an advocacy group for the state's 25,000 unionized health-care workers, is undertaking a statewide education effort.

Neal Bisno, the group's president, said SEIU Healthcare PA held a training session last week for 500 health-care workers on the new law. Those volunteers will serve as the backbone of SEIU Healthcare's efforts to educate consumers over the next six months, he said.

The six-month period covers the time between the opening of health-care markets and March 31, the deadline for the uninsured to purchase policies.

The opening of the health-care markets is the most significant milestone since the passage of the law in 2010.

The markets are designed to provide the uninsured with a range of policy options within economic reach of even the most disadvantaged American.

The opening of the markets has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the political battle in Washington, led by a group of Republicans seeking to dismantle the law before it takes effect. That has served to obscure the details of an admittedly complicated process.

"I think the rhetoric in the press has really thrown people off," Collingsgru said.

Regardless, the "navigators" contracted to help guide people through the processes are gearing up for a big day Tuesday.

Resources for Human Development, a Philadelphia nonprofit, is one of five groups contracted to help consumers make their choices.

While RHD sees Tuesday as "an opportunity to start the process," according to Laura Line, corporate assistant director for health care, the nonprofit has already experienced a flood of calls from consumers leading up to the markets' opening.

For the most part, callers are just starting the process of sifting through their choices before making final decisions.

"The enrollment process is one of decision-making, and that takes time," Line said.

RHD will have 24 navigators in place Tuesday to handle calls from the 10 counties it will be serving, which include the five-county Philadelphia region.

"The volume has been tremendous," Line said of the days leading up to the opening of the markets, "and we expect that to continue tomorrow."

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