WASHINGTON (USATODAY.com)- A week after a Government Accountability Office report said new health insurance exchanges may not be fully ready to launch in October, the government Monday began a 100-day public education blitz by releasing a new website, call center and publicity campaign.
The campaign is designed to educate those who do not have insurance about how the marketplaces will work and how to obtain health insurance. Most Americans who do not have insurance now will need to purchase insurance to avoid paying a fine. The health exchanges, or marketplaces, are meant to provide less expensive, but better, insurance options that are easy to understand.
Consumers will go to either a state or federal website, compare and contrast plans from several insurers based on benefits and costs, and purchase insurance. Those making less than 400% of the federal poverty level will receive financial help with the insurance, which will automatically be applied when they sign up online.
"We're ready," Marilyn Tavenner, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told USA TODAY last week. "In our minds, with the launch on Monday, it really moves us to the next step."
As she talked, Tavenner spread a Virginia Commonwealth University calendar out on her desk. Each day contained a number signifying days until launch, and big black Xs marked the days already passed. Her staff talked excitedly about the campaign - and about the late nights and weekends that have led to it.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the federal government has missed deadlines for the exchanges and is behind schedule on making sure consumers can get their federal subsidies, making sure health insurance plans are eligible to be sold through the marketplaces, and hiring people to help consumers enroll in the exchanges.
"Much progress has been made, but much remains to be accomplished within a relatively short amount of time," the report said. The study said progress had been made on finishing the major elements needed to make the exchanges work.
Over the past several months, the administration has repeatedly asked for more funds to set up and promote the Affordable Care Act, and, each time, Congress has refused the requests. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius then went to industry officials and asked for help. Members of Congress objected to her asking the people who stood to benefit -- or to lose money, should the exchanges fail --saying that those asked don't have any choice but to give.
Starting Monday, visitors to healthcare.gov will be asked questions about their age, sex, disability status and income. How they answer could provide them with detailed information, such as:
• Whether a participant is eligible for help paying for insurance.
• What would be covered if a woman becomes pregnant.
• What plans are available with benefits that fit a person's needs.
• Whether insurance would come through a federal or state exchange.
• How small businesses can use the exchanges for insurance for their employees.
The site also contains features that allow visitors to sign up for Internet updates or instant chats with a call-center operator to answer questions.
"There are lots of visual cues," said Julie Bataille, director of CMS's office of communications. "People asked for that."
The information can then be quickly shared through social media, e-mail or by printing it out in a format designed so people can sit down and study it. Then, in 100 days, they'll be able to choose and enroll in insurance plans online. There's also a site specifically for Spanish-speaking Americans, cuidadodesalud.gov. The call center number is 800-318-2596.
"We know how important this audience is," Bataille said, explaining that though most Spanish speakers will read the information in both English and Spanish, they'll relate to it better in Spanish.
The government has also only conducted initial testing on the system's ability to connect with the states and the Internal Revenue Service, the GAO report said. Despite those concerns, Tavenner said the government will be ready.
The new site, Bataille said, "is one demonstrative example that shows we're going to be ready. ... People have been working on this for more than a year."
Tavenner said they've had to taper the roll out as Congress has reduced funding for publicity.
"We've kind of quietly gone on about our work," she said, adding her theory about why people seem so confused by what the law contains: "I think it's the fact that people can't see and touch the marketplace until it goes online."
Skepticism about the law is normal, she said, just as it was for other programs, such as Medicare Part D. But the successful experience with projects such as that makes her confident the exchanges will be up and running on time, Tavenner said.
"Now do I feel like we'll make modifications as we go? Yes," she said. "We're really changing the way the United States looks at insurance and coverage."
States with their own exchanges have a budget for marketing, so the government is focusing on other states. Government officials had expected more states to create their own marketplaces, and the increased number who decided not to has eaten into the government's budget.
"Obviously, we're prioritizing," Tavenner said, but she added that "this is not a sprint" because after the markets open Oct. 1, people will be able to sign up for insurance until March 31.