Herald News

Health Sign-Ups Increasing


Herald News — Thursday, February 12, 2015

With just days left until Sunday's deadline to enroll in health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, interest is surging, federal officials said Wednesday. Visits to healthcare.gov soared by 58 percent Wednesday morning compared to a week earlier, and calls to the federal call center increased by 37 percent.

Enrollment counselors around New Jersey were booked solid, as the uninsured and others who buy their own coverage tried to beat the deadline and avoid paying a tax penalty next year. More than 100 people signed up for coverage on Tuesday night alone at a Union City event that went into the wee hours, and the United Way office in Paterson was busy seeing applicants Wednesday afternoon, said an outreach coordinator for SRA, a federal subcontractor assisting in the sign-ups.

In New Jersey, 222,640 people had selected plans or been automatically reenrolled as of Feb. 11, an uptick of more than 6,000 in a single week. About 20,000 New Jersey residents chose insurance plans over the last month, not counting sign-ups for Medicaid.

Across the country, 7.75 million people have chosen a plan or been automatically re-enrolled, according to the weekly enrollment snapshot released by the federal Health and Human Services department, exceeding the government's goal of 7 million.

"I urge people not to wait until the last minute," said Andy Slavitt, a senior official with the department. As long as people start the enrollment process by Feb. 15, he said, "we will work down the queue for as long as it takes to get through the queue."

In answer to a question about whether a deadline extension was planned, Slavitt said consumers "should consider Feb. 15 as the last day to get coverage. ... We won't be considering anything until after we get through this open-enrollment period."

The smooth operation of the web site, and average wait of just under 5 minutes for a call-center operator contrasted sharply with last year's chaotic enrollment period. "The difference in the enrollment experience between this year and last year is pretty dramatic," said Kevin Counihan, chief executive officer of the federal marketplace, in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.

So far, the biggest year-over-year hikes in enrollment have been seen in southern states: Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi, Slavitt said.

Last year, young people hung back until close to the end of the enrollment period, then surged to apply. "We certainly wouldn't be surprised if we see that kind of enrollment again," Counihan said.

Also Wednesday, a Trenton think-tank urged local and county officials to treat enrollment efforts as a key part of their economic development strategies, stressing the federal funds flowing into the state to pay for expanded Medicaid enrollment and to subsidize the premiums of people who purchase coverage on the federal marketplace will create jobs.

As of December, nearly 400,000 people in New Jersey had enrolled in Medicaid coverage, and — with Wednesday's report — 222,000 in private insurance plans sold on healthcare.gov. "These enrollments have brought in about $239 million in federal funds each month, or $2.9 billion a year," said the report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a non-profit that advocates full enrollment in Affordable Care Act coverage.

As people seek health care, out-patient centers and doctors offices are likely to add staff to care for them, and the salaries they are paid will stimulate the economy, said Raymond Castro, the report's author. The impact of these federal dollars "would be greatest in areas where unemployment is highest — exactly where an economic boost is most needed," the report said.

The report projected as many as 1,746 additional jobs in Paterson, for example, if full enrollment is attained; and another 1,049 in Passaic.

Bergen County, where more than 58,000 people have been added to Medicaid rolls and marketplace plans, is generating $261 million annually in federal spending for Medicaid and premium subsidies, the report said. Over the next two years, that is projected to lead to creation of nearly 3,000 jobs, the report said.

Others challenged that argument. Mike Proto, a spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group supported by the Koch brothers, said the law is "crushing small businesses — forcing employers to cut hours or slow hiring — and making the state even more dependent on a federal government $18 trillion in debt.

"If New Jersey is interested in creating jobs, we have plenty of other ideas that are a lot less destructive, and aren't funded by taxpayers but rather by actual private sector growth," he said.

According to the latest report from the state Labor Department, jobs in the "education and health services" sector of the economy increased by 14,800 from December 2013 to December 2014, a gain of 2.3 percent.

"New Jersey has a terrific opportunity to expand federal dollars coming into our state and to expand the impact those dollars have," said Maura Collinsgru, health policy advocate with New Jersey Citizen Action.

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