October 22, 2013

Maine kept in dark on health care sign-up data

U.S. officials won’t provide numbers until November, leaving a state panel unsure if more public-awareness efforts are needed.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

U.S. officials won’t provide numbers until November, leaving a state panel unsure if awareness efforts are needed.

Maine lawmakers expressed frustration Monday that the Obama administration has not released data on how many of the state’s residents are signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange that opened Oct. 1.

Members of a panel that is monitoring implementation of the Affordable Care Act said that without enrollment numbers, the state doesn’t know whether it needs to step up public awareness campaigns to tell residents about the exchange and the availability of subsidized coverage.

“We don’t have a lot of people on the ground, beating the bushes to sign (people) up,” Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, told Christine Hager, the Region 1 director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during a publicly aired conference call with the panel Monday. “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.”

As the panel met in Augusta, President Obama appeared in the White House Rose Garden to defuse criticism of his health care law, in particular the troubled website for the health insurance marketplace, where consumers have had difficulty logging in and applying for coverage.

Public awareness about the health care law remains low, particularly among the uninsured. A Gallup Poll published Monday showed that seven of 10 uninsured Americans are “not too familiar” or “not familiar at all” with the insurance marketplaces.

Nearly 129,000 Mainers are uninsured, according to 2012 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s population. The Maine Bureau of Insurance has estimated that 5 to 8 percent of the state’s residents will go to the marketplace for coverage.

Residents must enroll by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin on Jan. 1. With some exceptions, people without health insurance who don’t sign up by Feb. 15 may be penalized on their 2014 tax returns with $95 fines.

The Obama administration rolled out a multimillion-dollar ad campaign before Oct. 1, but that effort was concentrated in states where Republicans had waged aggressive campaigns against the law. Maine Gov. Paul LePage has been an active opponent. He has refused to set up a state-based insurance marketplace, saying in 2012 that Maine “wouldn’t lift a finger” to implement the law.

Nonetheless, high-profile advocacy efforts by the Obama administration have been limited here, confined to advertising on websites and in newspapers.

Officials with the administration say the problems with the online marketplace stem in part from the large number of applicants. The White House reported Saturday that nearly half a million Americans had applied for health insurance through the federal and state exchanges. Federal officials have said that they won’t provide state-specific data until November.

On Monday, Treat urged Hager to release that data sooner.

Health care advocates and insurers have reported that interest has been high since the marketplaces opened, but there has been no way to quantify the interest or determine how many people have bought insurance.

The angst is acute among Democrats. Many have advocated for the federal health care law despite skepticism from the public. The shutdown of the federal government overshadowed the bumpy rollout of healthcare.gov. Now that the stalemate is over, the attention is back on the health care law, a politically divisive issue since it was enacted in 2010.

At least two members of Maine’s congressional delegation echoed the frustration of state officials regarding the rollout of the health care plan.

“I’m extremely frustrated with the technical problems plaguing the rollout, and I urge the administration to act quickly to fix them,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in a statement issued Monday night. “I’d also like the administration to provide state partners the updates they need in order to help ensure that implementation is a success and helps everyone who needs it.”

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