Federal Obamacare official does little to quell state health care panel’s concerns

The State House in Augusta.
The State House in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 21, 2013, at 10:38 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 21, 2013, at 4:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A committee designed to advise state government on the roll-out of the federal Affordable Care Act met for the second time on Monday but ended up generating far more questions than answers.

One of the questions everyone on the Health Exchange Advisory Committee had is how many Mainers have signed up for health insurance under the new health care law and given the widespread and disastrous technical problems in the federal government’s online sign-up tool, how many have tried and failed.

Christie Hager, a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who joined the committee meeting by telephone, was unable to answer either of those questions.

“We do not have state-specific enrollment data,” said Hager. “We’re expecting we’ll have that roughly around the middle of next month.”

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who chairs the committee, asked another popular question: How long until the federal online health insurance exchange is fixed?

“There’s no date certain for repairs,” said Hagar.

The deadline for signing up for health insurance that will kick in on Jan. 1, 2014, is Dec. 15 of this year. Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said the timeline for the release of data and repairs to the online system as stated by Hagar are problematic for health care advocates in Maine who want to help people choose an insurance plan and enroll in but don’t know where to start.

“It’s really important that we get that data on the street level as soon as possible,” said Treat to Hager. “We don’t have a lot of people beating the bushes out there to sign up. … If November 15 is when data will be available, that only leaves one month between then and when the deadline is to sign up. I strongly encourage you to get us state-level data. It would be very helpful for us to have a sense of what’s going on out there.”

That conversation led to another concern: If the sign-up system isn’t working and might not for another month, does the federal government plan to push back the sign-up deadlines?

“We don’t have any information about the moving of deadlines,” said Hager.

So where does that leave uninsured Mainers who want to enroll but have been frustrated by the computer problems. Wait a couple of weeks and try again, say the experts, such as Emily Brostek of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, who is fielding hundreds of calls from Mainers with questions about how to sign up and which plan to buy.

“We’ve been encouraging people to just wait a couple of weeks and be patient,” she said outside the meeting. “It’s a concern of ours that people might be turned off by the process but we’ve heard from people that they’re so excited to have affordable health care options that it’s not a concern for them.”

The Health Care Exchange Advisory Committee was formed as a legislative study group and Treat said she hopes the committee can make suggestions to the Legislature when it reconvenes in January about ways to help with the Affordable Care Act roll-out. One issue she’s especially concerned about is the number of experts available to help when consumers have questions. Treat said the LePage administration opted to not apply for federal grant funds for this purpose — New Hampshire, by comparison, received more than $5 million — but she hopes the state will take advantage of new rounds of grants.

“There are a lot of people in Maine who will qualify for this health insurance and if they’re not because we’re not getting the word out or there isn’t someone to help them get through the process, which is a very complicated, especially for people who have never had insurance, we need to figure out how to solve that problem,” said Treat.

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