Philadelphia Inquirer

State Urged To Use Health Grant

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Friday, February 7, 2014

By Andrew Seidman, Inquirer Trenton Bureau

TRENTON — Lawmakers and health-care advocates urged the Christie administration Thursday to develop a proposal to use $7.6 million in federal funds to market the new health-care law before the state loses the money this month.

New Jersey has until Feb. 20 to submit a plan for how to use the grant, which the Department of Health and Human Services originally provided in February 2012 to support establishment of a state-operated health insurance marketplace.

Gov. Christie opted instead to let the federal government set up the exchange, and since then his administration has been negotiating with the Obama administration about how else to use the money.

While Christie has said he opposes the health-care law, he did accept an optional part of it — expanded Medicaid — unlike several other Republican governors.

An Obama administration official suggested Thursday at a legislative hearing that the state could use the money for an advertising campaign to boost public awareness of the law. Polling shows that New Jersey residents are less informed than the nation as a whole about the law's requirement that individuals obtain health insurance or pay a tax.

"We should have those dollars to do the outreach. It seems like we're holding our uninsured folks hostage by not reaching out to those folks," Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D., Camden) said. "I just don't understand why."

Marshall McKnight, a spokesman for the state Department of Banking and Insurance, said that because New Jersey had received the grant for the specific purpose of setting up its own exchange, the state had to "negotiate essentially a new contract with the federal government."

"And we continue those talks," he said.

A report released this week by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank, estimated that the funding could help 95,000 uninsured New Jerseyans get coverage. The report described enrollment thus far as "disappointing."

Of the 900,000 uninsured New Jersey residents who were eligible for health insurance under the law, about 35,000 had signed up for private insurance through the HealthCare.Gov website as of late December, HHS Regional Director Jaime R. Torres told the Assembly Health and Senior Services committee Thursday.

Enrollment on the website began in October amid its initially troubled introduction.

An additional 90,000 New Jerseyans had been approved for insurance as of late December, but had yet to pick a plan, Torres said.

About 71,000 state residents who had sought insurance through the marketplace were deemed eligible for Medicaid, and 70,000 had signed up directly through New Jersey's Medicaid office, Torres said.

Those eligible for insurance must enroll by March 31 or pay a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is higher.

Only 56 percent of New Jersey residents were aware of the individual mandate in the law, according to a September Monmouth University/New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute poll. That figure was well below the 74 percent of Americans nationwide who reported knowledge of the penalty in a Kaiser poll last March.

New Jersey officials have been "virtually silent" about the health care law, said Maura Collinsgru, health policy advocate with New Jersey Citizen Action, a government watchdog group. "That needs to change."

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