MIAMI (AP) -- In less than three months, uninsured Floridians will be able
to purchase medical insurance online under a new federal health law.
Making sure average citizens understand how it works will be a Herculean
task accompanied by a massive marketing blitz promoting the biggest
expansion of the social safety net since Medicare.
Hundreds of thousands of Florida residents making less
than $48,000 a year will be eligible for federal money to help purchase
their own insurance through online health exchanges under the Affordable
Care Act. The new marketplaces, which are open for enrollment this
October, will have the feel of an online travel site where individuals
and families can compare different private insurance plans.
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Health insurers will spend millions on ads pushing
their plans and the federal government is also launching a multi-million
dollar campaign, targeting libraries, gyms and concerts. Health clinics
and non-profits will also be joining the advertising mix.
That means Florida residents are about to get hit with a
ton of information designed to walk them through the enrollment
process, but the feds and insurers must also find a way to package the
information so it doesn't end up confusing residents even more.
"People are a little bit intimidated - not knowing what
to expect, not knowing what the outcome will be - but the resource will
hopefully allay some of the fears," said Renard Murray, a regional
administrator with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The federal government's marketing strategy includes
everything from door-to-door walks, working with churches, partnering
with local mayors and a massive social media presence, including phone
apps, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr campaigns.
Recently, Murray was wrapping up a presentation for
students at Florida International University in Miami, one of nearly a
dozen presentations he'd done over three days, along with a half dozen
In Broward County, state Rep. Richard Stark is working
with several other lawmakers on a campaign to help educate and enroll
residents. Stark, who is also an insurance agent, is already getting
calls from confused constituents and insurance clients.
"All these people started saying, 'I thought I didn't
have to do anything, that I would just start getting Obamacare," said
the Weston Democrat.
Seventy-eight percent of uninsured adults don't know
about opportunities that will be available to them in 2014 under the
Affordable Care Act, according to Enroll America, a nonprofit group
sponsoring a national campaign that includes home visits and passing out
brochures at farmers markets and churches.
But breaking down the law is complicated. Here are just a few reasons why:
Individuals will be required to either have health
insurance from their employer or purchase it and will pay a roughly $100
penalty next year if they don't. Anyone making less than $48,000 a year
we will receive a voucher from the federal government to help pay the
premium. The less a person makes, the more the government will pay.
Anyone making below the poverty line, $11,490 for an individual or
$23,550 for a family of four, won't be eligible to buy insurance through
the online marketplace because they already receive Medicaid.
Adding to the confusion, the federal government still
hasn't released which insurers are offering plans and how much premiums,
co-pays and deductibles will cost under those plans. The rates will
likely come out in September.
The Republican-led Florida Legislature, which has been
reluctant to implement the new health law, decided to let the federal
government run the state's online marketplace and isn't spending any
additional money on marketing and outreach. The state left it up to the
federal government, which gave $8 million to Florida agencies, mostly
county health departments and non-profit organizations, for marketing.
It spent another $5.8 million for so-called "navigators," counselors
trained to help people compare plans.
Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami plans to hire
some navigators and outreach staff, but still hasn't received the
$256,000 grant it's been awarded. The new navigators have to be
certified, but the feds haven't laid out the details of that process
"We're trying to get ready but we don't know exactly
what we're getting ready for. It's sort of a waiting game. It's a little
frustrating, but at the same time I'm hopeful," CEO Bob Linder said. He
estimates 1,200 of the 28,000 patients they treat annually may take
advantage of the marketplace.
Insurers are also waiting for the government to certify their plans under the highly regulated exchange.
"Normally for a lift of this size we would be in
testing mode and we wish we were and were working out kinks with the
federal government," said Doug Bartel, a spokesman for the
not-for-profit Florida Blue, the largest domestic insurer in the state,
which will offer several plans through the exchange.
For insurers, the online marketplace marks a distinct
change in the way they conduct business as they begin selling directly
to consumers. Foreseeing such changes, Florida Blue opened a stand-alone
store in 2006 where residents could talk to someone face to face.
Executives say the 11 stores, which are sleek yet warm, uniquely
position them for the exchange.
"Health insurance is really intimidating so we're
trying to take some of the confusion out of it through face to face
engagement," said Bartel.
The insurer is also experimenting with onsite clinics
staffed by primary care doctors at two stores in Pensacola and Polk
Despite the media hype and the looming October
deadline, critics fear the federal government won't be ready.
Republicans point to the Obama administration's recent decision to delay
the business mandate as a sign that implementation is fraying.
"We did Medicare Part D a while back and people said
that it couldn't be done...it can be done and it will be done. Our
systems are ready. We feel that our supports and other things will be up
and running...the website, the call center," Murray said.