Burlington County Times

Advocates Urge Christie To Spend $7.6 Million On 'Obamacare' Outreach

Burlington County Times — Wednesday, February 5, 2014

By David Levinsky
Staff writer

Time is running out for Gov. Chris Christie's administration to decide how to spend $7.6 million in federal funds it received two years ago to help implement the Affordable Care Act.

If Christie fails to act by Feb. 20, the state risks forfeiting the money back to the federal government.

With that in mind, health care advocates held a telephone news conference Wednesday to urge the administration to use the money to perform outreach and education about the options available from the health care overhaul and the federal insurance marketplace.

"Polls show overall that the public is not aware of the opportunities in the (federal) marketplace," said Ray Castro, a senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank that has long advocated for more state outreach about the health care law, also known as "Obamacare," particularly the federal subsidies available to residents to obtain quality coverage.

According to the group, only about 79,000 New Jersey residents have enrolled in the federal marketplace, compared with an estimated 900,000 uninsured New Jerseyans who are eligible.

The group estimates that using the money to fund "enhanced outreach" about the law would likely result in an additional 95,000 uninsured residents obtaining quality health plans.

"We need to reach people," Castro said during the conference call.

The $7.6 million was awarded two years ago to help with planning for the creation of a state health insurance marketplace, also known as a health care exchange, where residents could shop online or by telephone for approved insurance plans.

Christie rejected the idea of a state-run exchange and left it to the federal government to build the online and telephone marketplace. So far, only about 79,000 New Jerseyans have enrolled through the market, which was plagued with problems when it was rolled out in November.

New Jersey was still permitted to keep the planning money, and the state Department of Banking and Insurance has had discussions with federal officials about permitted uses of the money. It still has not submitted a proposal for consideration.

Castro and other advocates said the federal government has said outreach is an acceptable use for the money and has encouraged other states to use unspent or leftover planning money for that purpose. They worry that Christie has chosen not to do so for political reasons.

"Up until now, the governor has taken a hands-off approach (to the Affordable Care Act), but he's moved now to obstructing access," said Maura Collinsgru, a health policy advocate for the nonprofit group New Jersey Citizen Action. "This is one barrier that doesn't need to be here."

Joining the advocates on the conference call was Congressman Rush Holt, D-12th of Hopewell. He said he's written Christie several times to urge him to use the federal planning money for outreach.

"There are hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who could be in the system and should be in the system, but aren't," Holt said. "Too many places in the country — and I fear New Jersey is one of them — people are being cut out because of political ideology surrounding this."

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