NorthJersey.com

Health Care Enrollment Push In North Jersey Gets A Personal Touch

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — Friday, November 14, 2014

By LINDY WASHBURN
Staff Writer
The Record

Round 2 of President Obama's health care overhaul starts on Saturday as the three-month enrollment period for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act begins. This year, health insurance is going retail.

Advocates and insurers are focused on old-fashioned face-to-face meetings to bolster enrollment despite the spotlight on the online performance of HealthCare.gov, the website whose disastrous debut caused profound embarrassment to the administration last year.

A walk-in center for the federal insurance marketplace, located on a busy bus route in Cliffside Park, has 40 staffers — double last year's number — who speak a total of 13 languages and are ready to help with sign-ups. Near the holiday tree on the concourse at Willowbrook Mall, workers at a kiosk for the state's largest insurer are answering coverage questions and booking appointments for enrollment assistance.

And a coalition of consumer groups |and social service agencies started a new website on Thursday, CoverNJ.org, which provides centralized information about the different enrollment-assistance organizations, their locations and hours.

Its purpose is to connect people with the help they need to sign up before Feb. 15.

"The importance of in-person assistance can't be overstated," said John Gilbert, national outreach coordinator for Enroll America, the national non-profit group working in New Jersey and 10 other states to help the uninsured get coverage.

"It can mean all the difference between enrollment and non-enrollment."

Or as Christine Caputo, a 27-year-old Belleville teacher who was laid off in June, said on Thursday afternoon, "I'd rather talk |to an actual person than go online."

At the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey kiosk at the mall in Wayne, Caputo received a quick estimate of the subsidy she would receive to purchase insurance, based on her unemployment income.

Maria Contreras, the insurer's representative, booked her for an appointment later this month to enroll in Horizon coverage.

"We've made more than 100 appointments at our four mall locations," said Rob Maxton, the mobile-program manager, as passing shoppers eyed the blue and white display.

Additional Horizon kiosks are at malls in Woodbridge, Jersey City and Elizabeth.

As open enrollment begins, polls show that most of the remaining uninsured know little or nothing about the insurance marketplace.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that fewer than half of those it surveyed were aware that financial help — through tax credits — is available to those whose income is below 400 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or around $47,000 for an individual. The cost of ignorance will rise next year: For 2015, the penalty for not having insurance increases to $325, or 2 percent of income, whichever is higher.

Enroll America, after evaluating its experience during the six-month enrollment period that ended last spring, concluded that consumers who received in-person assistance were twice as likely to sign up for coverage.

Personal help was "the most important thing for those with the lowest educational attainment or limited English or who were new to health insurance," said Katherine Hempstead, director of the health-reform monitoring project for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national health care philanthropy based in New Brunswick.

In states like New Jersey, where the federal government runs the insurance marketplace and few state resources are spent to encourage Obamacare sign-ups, a coordinated effort by health and consumer advocates was key last year to increasing enrollment, a study by the Urban Institute, a non-profit and non-partisan research group, found.

"In-person meetings are the most effective way to help people enroll," the study said.

New Jersey saw more than 500,000 uninsured people gain coverage in 2014, nearly halving the uninsured rate, according to estimates by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Most of the newly insured enrolled in state Medicaid, which was expanded with federal funding to include poor, childless adults.

But more than 161,000 others obtained coverage through Obamacare plans offered on HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace for New Jersey.

That number, however, accounted for "only about a quarter of everyone who is eligible for the marketplace," said Ray Castro, senior analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective.

"We need to do everything we can to reach many more of the uninsured."

To do that and to help last year's enrollees as they renew coverage, more people have been trained and certified to provide ­unbiased assistance to those signing up. These enrollment assisters, employees or volunteers for health care groups or non-profit agencies, don't work on behalf of any specific insurance company.

They speak languages from Gujarati to Russian, Arabic to Korean, said Anthony Borges, the outreach coordinator for SRA, |a federal contractor that has opened walk-in centers on Anderson Avenue in Cliffside Park and in Iselin.

His staff will also work at four locations in Paterson: the United Way office in the Center City Mall; two libraries; and the One-Stop Career Center.

"We've had a tremendous increase in capacity," to 400 such counselors, up from 250 to 300 last year, said Maura Collinsgru, health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.

Other locations where help is provided include community health centers in Englewood, Garfield, Hackensack, Passaic and Paterson, and hospitals where the New Jersey Hospital Association plans to deploy 20 veterans who have been trained to assist enrollment.

Shopping decisions may be more difficult this year because the number of insurance companies offering plans has increased, from three to five, and the number of plans offered has climbed, from 29 to nearly 50.

"In New Jersey, all of a sudden, the marketplace has gotten more complicated," Hempstead said. Consumers need to take a look at various features, ranging from the cost of generic drugs to the specific doctors and hospitals that receive maximum coverage, she said, as well as compare premiums.

But "even if they could see [the information] online, they want to talk to someone," she said.

Most of the activity on HealthCare.gov this year is expected to be among those who are renewing coverage, and shoppers will want to know how one company's plan would serve their needs compared with another's.

Insurers prefer to speak directly with their potential customers and are establishing their presence in places with plenty of foot traffic.

One company, Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey, plans events at local CVS pharmacies.

They are transforming their businesses to interact with individual users, rather than solely with brokers and human-resource departments.

Eventually, said Hempstead, "everybody is ultimately going to buy health insurance this way."

Copyright 2014 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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