The Star-Ledger

Consumer Groups Urge NJ To Meet Feb. 20 Deadline To Use Money To Boost Obamacare Enrollment

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, February 5, 2014

By Susan K. Livio and Kathleen O'Brien / The Star-Ledger

TRENTON — The Christie administration must decide by Feb. 20 how it intends to use $7.6 million in federal funds it received two years ago — when the state was considering launching its own health exchange created by the Affordable Care Act — or forfeit the money.

Gov. Chris Christie chose to let the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services run the online portal that people may use to shop for and select a health policy, leaving the fate of the money uncertain.

The looming deadline prompted leaders from consumer organizations and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) to hold a telephone press conference today urging the governor to spend the money on advertising and other promotional efforts, which they said were sorely needed, so more people know about how to sign up for coverage.

Nine in 10 of New Jersey's uninsured residents — or roughly 780,000 people — may qualify for subsidies to help pay for premiums, or for Medicaid, federal officials estimate. So far, only 106,000 have signed up.

Another 95,000 uninsured people were expected to have applied by now, according to a report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning research group, based on an analysis by the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy.

"Despite this great need, enrollment...has been disappointing, primarily because few people understand how the marketplace works or even know that it exists," the report said.

Maura Collinsgru, a policy advocate for NJ Citizen Action, said: "Until now, the governor has taken a hands-off approach with all things ACA. He has sat on the sidelines neither encouraging nor disrupting enrollment . As governor of New Jersey, he has a responsibility to accept assistance that can help connect New Jerseyans to coverage."

During a visit to Jersey City on Monday to promote the program in the final eight weeks before enrollment closes for the year, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, confirmed the state would have to forfeit the money if officials could not come to an agreement on how it would be spent.

"We're willing to repurpose the grant and work with them," said Sebelius, who indicated there had been several "back and forth" conversations about the money.

New Jersey proposed using the funds for additional workers at its Medicaid call center, but that idea was rejected because it wasn't allowed under the grant rules, Jaime Torres, HHS regional director, said at the Jersey City event.

"We've been in talks ever since," said Marshall McKnight, a spokesman for the N.J. Department of Banking and Insurance.

McKnight declined to say what other suggestions the state had made for using the money.

Crystal McDonald, director of organizing for PICO-NJ, part of a national network of faith-based that support Obamacare, said they money should be used to publicize the program.

"People are so confused they do not even know where to go to access information," McDonald said. "It would help get the information out in a broader way."

The open enrollment period for the year ends March 31 for people who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The enrollment period does not close for Medicaid beneficiaries.

People who do not obtain insurance before April 1 will be assessed a fine when they file their taxes next year.

Residents seeking information about how to sign up for coverage can go to or call either 1-888-njgetwell or call Citizen Action's certified application counselors at 1-888-829-3711.

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