Advocates, Congressmen Urge N.J. Not To Waste A $7.6M Health Insurance Grant

The Record ( — Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Record

A federal grant that the Christie Administration has left unused could help as many as 95,000 uninsured residents enroll in health coverage, a liberal think tank said Wednesday. But without a proposal to use it, the state will forfeit the $7.6 million on Feb. 20.

"The state has been nothing but obstinate in not claiming this money," said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-12. "What we should do right now — before the clock ticks further — is use the millions of dollars available ... to get as many people as possible into the system" of insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

New Jersey received $7.6 million in 2012 to plan for a state-based health insurance marketplace, where consumers would be able to buy new health plans made available under the health reform law. But the governor twice vetoed legislation that would have established the exchange in New Jersey, deferring instead to a federally run marketplace - and leaving the grant unclaimed and unspent.

Holt joined New Jersey Policy Perspective and other health-care advocates on the conference call with reporters. The insurance outreach effort that could be funded by the grant would reach uninsured people in every county and all walks of life, said Raymond Castro, the policy-group's analyst. About 67,000 of those uninsured are found in families with a full-time worker, he said. But the targets for enrollment also include immigrant families where no adult speaks English, those with mental illness, and the poor.

For months, a spokesman for the state Department of Insurance has said it is in discussion with the federal Department of Health and Human Services about the appropriate use of the funds. The insurance department "continues to talk to [the federal] Health and Human Services Department about the appropriate use of these funds," Marshall McKnight, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

While Governor Christie declared his opposition to the law, he was one of the few Republican governors to permit the expansion of state Medicaid to childless adults. And by not allowing the state to establish its own insurance marketplace, New Jersey lost the opportunity to receive many millions of dollars more to market the new health plans. State officials have been silent on the new opportunities for health coverage.

In January, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell introduced a measure that would allow the federal government to redirect unused federal grants to non-profit organizations in the same states to be used to reach uninsured residents with information about the new options. And U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-8, also has called upon the Christie administration to use the money to increase health insurance coverage.

By not using the funds, the governor "is actively obstructing consumers' access" to the benefits of the law, said Maura Collinsgru, health advocate for New Jersey Citizen Action.

A majority of people who would benefit from the law don't know what they need to do to obtain insurance, advocates said. "We see every day that people just don't know what's going on," said Crystal McDonald, director of organizing for PICO-NJ, a state affiliate of the national faith-based community organizing network. "They know there's Obamacare, but they don't know what that means."

Many of those newly eligible for Medicaid have never had health coverage before, she said. They can enroll in coverage at any time during the year, while those buying policies on the exchange have until March 31 to avoid paying a tax penalty.

"We've been able to touch just a small percentage of the people eligible for these insurance options," McDonald said.

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