N.J. Steps Up Health Care Push; Teaneck Case Leads To A Meeting With Obama

The Record ( — Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Record

With less than a week remaining until the first important enrollment deadline of the Affordable Care Act, health care advocates in New Jersey staffed phone banks on Wednesday to urge the uninsured to sign up for coverage, and President Obama met with a Teaneck mother and others to call attention to the role ordinary women can play in spreading the word about his signature health care law.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, announced they would extend the deadline to pay January's premium until after the holidays.

The flurry of activity came as crunch time drew closer to enroll in the plans. People have until Monday to sign up if they want coverage to begin on Jan. 1.

Nearly 90 percent of New Jersey's 900,000 uninsured had yet to apply for coverage as of Dec. 1, the latest government figures showed. And concerns have grown that others, whose private policies were terminated by their insurers, will face gaps in coverage if their efforts to enroll on the troubled federal website are unsuccessful.

"The time is now to get connected and get covered," said Maura Collinsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Various groups in the NJ for Health Care coalition plan to call 5,000 people before the deadline to let them know about their insurance options and connect them with people trained to provide enrollment assistance, she said. Calls will be going to Passaic County and Newark over the next few days, and have already begun in Camden, she said.

Voter records, cards signed at educational events about the insurance law and other information are being used to target households where people without insurance are believed to live in New Jersey.

"We still have over 800,000 eligible people who need to connect with coverage," she said. The main issue is "people still don't know what's out there and what they're eligible for," she said. "Getting the word out still seems to be the primary need."

One call reached a wrong number, she said, "but the individual we did reach just lost [her] insurance, had four children and was happy to hear about how she could get health insurance."

Nationally, 4 out of 10 uninsured people said they knew "nothing at all" about the new insurance marketplaces, and two-thirds said they did not have enough information to know how the law affects them and their families, according to a Kaiser Tracking Poll in November.

New Jersey has spent little to publicize the federally run insurance marketplace for New Jersey, after Governor Christie vetoed two measures that would have created a state-based insurance exchange. Health care advocates again called on Christie to use a $7.6 million federal grant that was to have gone to a state-run marketplace for outreach.

Joining in the call to spread the word were Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union and a former candidate for lieutenant governor, Candice Singer of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence New Jersey, and Jeff Abramo of the AARP.

Justine Cesarano, state director of Enroll America, which also has made reminder calls to the uninsured, said people were grateful for specific information on the steps they needed to take.

Meanwhile, a Teaneck mother who wrote a thank-you letter to Obama last year got a chance to tell him in person Wednesday how his health care law provided a vital benefit to her daughter. Her daughter, Shira Lazar, who is 22, does not get health insurance in her job as a waitress.

When Shira needed emergency gallbladder surgery last year, she had coverage because of a provision in the law allowing children to remain on their parents' policies until age 26.

"I realized if wasn't for Obamacare, the insurance company would have kicked her out at 21," said Shira's mother, Susan Lazar, "and I don't know what we would have done."

The day after the operation, she wrote the president. On Tuesday, she received a surprise call inviting her to Washington.

"They gave us almost an hour of their time," she said in a phone interview after the meeting with Obama, his wife, and seven other mothers with similar stories to tell. "They wanted to hear our stories about our kids and how health care helps and to really encourage us to spread the word."

Along with talking about her daughter's operation, Lazar also said that as a psychotherapist, she appreciates that the law provides parity for mental health coverage.

"This really activated me, motivated me," she said. "I want to really spread the word. ... I think there's a lot of fear-mongering going around."

Obama said getting people to talk with neighbors and friends about the law was the goal of bringing the women into the Oval Office. "There's something about moms," he said. "Nothing can replace telling stories in the grocery store to somebody who may be skeptical."

Also on Wednesday, the national insurance trade group said that its members would agree to the president's request and voluntarily extend the deadline for consumers to pay their first month's premium. Consumers who select a plan by Monday and pay their premiums by Jan. 10 will be able to have coverage effective Jan. 1.

The extension is intended to provide peace of mind and "help protect consumers from potential gaps in their coverage caused by the ongoing technical problems with," the website for the federally run marketplace, according to a statement from the Association of Health Insurance Plans. It acknowledged that significant improvements had been made in the website's enrollment process, but cautioned that more work needs to be done on the back end to ensure that everyone who selects a plan is actually enrolled.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey said its "top priority right now" is to help customers who are trying to obtain coverage to start at the beginning of the year.

While Horizon urged customers to pay their first month's premium by Dec. 31 — via the insurer's toll-free number, if necessary — the first month's payments will be accepted through Jan. 10, said a statement from Tom Rubino, the company's director of public affairs. Those who are receiving federal subsidies to purchase insurance need to pay their portion of the premium by Jan. 10, too, he said.

The company is notifying consumers of the steps they need to take via phone calls and email, he said.

Health Republic of New Jersey, a new company selling plans on the federal exchange, said it was also extending the deadline to Jan. 10.

The open enrollment period, during which consumers can sign up for coverage without facing tax penalties for going uninsured, continues through March 31.

"We see this as a marathon and not a sprint," said Silva, the union leader, during the advocates' news conference. "Our work between now and the New Year is just one step."

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