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Online Improvements, In-Person Help Readied For Obamacare Open Enrollment Beginning Saturday

NJ.com —Friday, November 14, 2014

Tim Darragh | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

When federal officials flip the switch on Obamacare 2.0 Saturday, the lessons learned from last year's disastrous rollout of the health insurance program will be evident in numerous ways, federal, state, local and industry representatives promised this week.

Improved online tools, more targeted enrollment programs and a phalanx of advisers speaking a host of languages will be on the ready as consumers begin shopping for health insurance at the start of the Affordable Care Act's second open enrollment period.

But if there's only one certain takeaway from the first open enrollment period last year, observers say, it is believe it when you see it.

"We're hoping the web site will work," said Dave Mordo, vice president of education and compliance for Walsh Benefits, an employee benefits agency based in Fair Haven. The federal government's site, HealthCare.gov, was overrun on its opening Oct. 1, 2013, tied up millions of applications and only began working efficiently this year.

And new this year, residents in New Jersey will have an online helping hand to navigate the system, even though they will still have to register on the federal site.

A coalition of community and health organizations Thursday unveiled CoverNJ.org, a state-specific web site that will offer information on where to get face-to-face assistance for individuals and small business owners, answer questions, publicize enrollment events and help consumers determine if they qualify for Medicaid or subsidized Obamacare coverage. Consumers also can plug their information into an online tool that will calculate if they qualify for a subsidy.

Instead of competing with individual web sites, covernj.org will collect information from groups all across the state, said Maura Collinsgru, Health Care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.

In addition to the online help, the organizers said they will deploy scores of navigators and certified application consultants — many multi-lingual — to help diverse populations.

One of those learned lessons from the 2013-14 open enrollment period was that more attention needs to be directed toward non-English speaking populations, Collinsgru said.

A "mirror image" of covernj.org will be available in Spanish in about two weeks, said Evelyn Mercado, community services manager at HOPES Community Action Partnership in Hoboken.

The New Jersey Hospital Association, which is part of the covernj.org team, also will have a team of military veterans working to enroll consumers.

Piertus Esperience of North Brunswick is one. A veteran of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Esperience said he learned to "adapt to different places" through his military background, allowing him to move in and out of different communities. He speaks Haitian Creole, which will help in Haitian enclaves in Union and Middlesex counties, he said.

Esperience, who said he helped enroll close to 400 people in the first open enrollment period, underwent more training this year and anticipates that the rollout Saturday will be successful.

"So far, it's been smooth," he said.

To be successful, agencies will have to depend more on volunteers and non-government resources for in-person help. Reduced funding means New Jersey will have only four social service agencies sending out federal navigators, instead of the five that covered the state in the first open enrollment, noted Harold Garwin, president and executive director of the Community Health Law Project in South Orange.

Still, between the increased focus on reaching minority communities and the improved functionality of healthcare.gov, Garwin said he expects an easier enrollment season.

"I've been on it," Garwin said. "The site's much better now."

There is reason to believe that sign-ups will proceed more smoothly beginning Saturday. Improvements to the system allow consumers to window shop now for plans and to determine if they qualify for subsidies. Load times are faster, and capacity and security have been strengthened, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said this week at a public forum.

In addition, the federal government recently spent five weeks testing the system, Burwell said this week at the forum at the Center for American Progress. Last year, it tested healthcare.gov for only 10 days before the system's doomed launch, she said.

With such a massive undertaking, problems are bound to arise along the way, Mordo said.

"We know there will be glitches and downtime," he said. "The best thing is for people to use a broker who will guide them along. People have lives to lead. They might as well call the broker who does this every day."

Burwell agreed that consumers should expect problems. However, the consumer experience should be improved over 2013-14, she said.

Another challenge is the enrollment season will be shorter by half. Open enrollment will run through Feb. 15. The first open enrollment period was six months long — even if healthcare.gov was barely functional through its first three months.

That means less time to reach hard-to-get groups - a negative, considering that nine out of 10 uninsured people did not know the date of open enrollment, and more than half still were unaware that they may qualify for subsidies to defray the cost, according to a survey in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It's also less time to remind those enrolled this year that they should strongly consider shopping again.

Consumers who already have plans may find better deals now as insurance companies adjust to a marketplace that still is only 11 months old.

In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at Kaiser, an independent health care nonprofit agency, said the marketplace is still evolving. "It probably won't become steady for a few more years," Pollitz said.

If they do nothing, consumers who have policies now will see their coverage roll over into next year, she said.

The good news for existing policyholders is that their personal data will not have to be re-entered into healthcare.gov once they start the application process, she said.

Consumers will have until Dec. 15 to apply for coverage that begins Jan. 1, 2015 — the earliest date for new coverage. If a consumer applies after that date through Jan. 15, coverage won't begin until Feb. 1.

Consumers also still have time to apply for an exemption from the individual mandate — the part of the law that requires most individuals to have insurance or pay a penalty. The law has broad categories for exemptions, so it pays for uninsured individuals to explore that option, Pollitz said. The penalty for an individual is $95 or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater. The penalty increases next year under the law.

The online and personal assistance will help residents pick plans offered by five insurers, up from three in round one.

For all its problems, the Affordable Care Act in New Jersey in its first year ended up adding around 520,000 people to the ranks of the insured, cutting the uninsured number statewide nearly in half, according to a survey released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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