First day for new health plan mostly uneventful in Georgia

Telegraph staffOctober 1, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Despite a federal government shutdown and state government resistance, Georgians got their first look Tuesday at a list of health care plans they can buy that satisfy the new federal health care mandate.

The mandate is part of the Affordable Care Act, which is also known as Obamacare.

The health insurance marketplace, at www.healthcare.gov and run by the federal government, stumbled through the first few hours of business, sometimes offering Georgia shoppers delays instead of prices.

Meanwhile, events where nonprofit groups told Georgians about the changes ran smoothly.

“It does sound like a good idea. But we need to know the prices,” said Haddy Gomez, of Atlanta, speaking from the East Point library where she and about two dozen others watched a public 20-minute presentation about where to shop, when to shop, how to pay and what coverage is required in marketplace plans. It was put on by Enroll America, a Washington-based organization that does outreach and education in 10 states about the benefits of health care coverage and the options in the Affordable Care Act.

“We have six months (of open enrollment), but we want to make sure everybody knows how to enroll and gets the information that they need,” said Sandhya Anantharaman, an organizer with Enroll America’s Georgia operations.

While the library provided the meeting space and Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves made an appearance to call the marketplace’s debut a “great day,” the reception is cooler in other areas.

State Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens opened an August speech by declaring “the problem is Obamacare,” adding that his office was doing everything in its power to be an “obstructionist.”

Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year declined to set up a Georgia-run marketplace or last year to widen another path to health insurance, a Medicaid expansion.

One of Hudgens’ jobs is to regulate licensing of marketplace navigators, people who can provide expert guidance and answer questions about how the new mandate works.

There were four licensed navigators statewide as of Tuesday morning, said Glenn Allen, a spokesman with the Insurance Commissioner’s Office. Another 23 more, he said, are finishing the very last requirement, a criminal background check.

Most of the applicants work with either the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service or with Seedco, a New York-based nonprofit group that aims to increase economic opportunity for people. The two agencies will deploy navigators statewide.

“We will be scheduling specific events in Middle Georgia to provide education and materials, as well as setting up one-on-one appointments to help people enroll in affordable health care,” said Brian Robinson, Seedco’s vice president of external affairs.

Tuesday, UGA health navigator Tamra Allen spent two hours in the foyer at the library in Laurens County handing out general information about the health exchanges to people as they passed by.

“Today, some people were totally oblivious to what the program is. Some knew about it and wanted more information,” Allen said. “Some people with children were curious if they did not have coverage for their children.”

A few people said they already had health insurance and didn’t take the handout, she said.

Allen made contact with 40 to 45 people during the two hours she was at the library.

“We will be doing a workshop there in the auditorium within the next couple of weeks,” but it hasn’t been scheduled yet, she said.

Other workshops and meetings will be scheduled in the midstate, Allen said.

Tuesday was a normal day at First Choice Primary Care based in Macon, said CEO Katherine McLeod. She wasn’t aware of any patients asking about health care program.

Two employees at First Choice are going through the requirements to become licensed navigators so they will be able to help patients with questions, she said.

“We will be working with our patients -- about 55 percent are uninsured -- but we will also be working out in the community” to inform people about the new health plans, McLeod said.

The insurance commissioner’s message to uninsured Georgians is that “individuals that are interested in obtaining health insurance can reach out to their local agent, they can go online to healthcare.gov ... or they can contact the Georgia Department of Insurance,” Allen said.

Five companies will offer plans through the marketplace in Georgia, though only insurance provider Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia is working statewide. That means in some areas, people must choose that company through the marketplace or seek health insurance somewhere else.

In Middle Georgia, Humana also is offering insurance plans through the exchange.

Only marketplace plans offer price breaks for lower-income Georgians.

“Costs are going to go up under the (Affordable Care Act). It’s inevitable,” said Jack Bernard of Monticello, a retired hospital and health care management executive, as well as a former top Georgia official in charge of health policy. But he’s still for it because it extends health insurance, and hence health care, to millions of working poor people nationwide. The card-carrying Republican said a single-payer, Medicare-for-all-type system would be better, because it would drive down administrative and operating costs in the health care industry. It also would rope in the young and healthy, he said.

About one million people visited www.healthcare.gov nationwide in the seven hours ending at 7 a.m. Tuesday. That kind of demand shows two things, said state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, speaking at a small news conference with fellow Democrat leaders and nonprofits at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

“Number one, that Americans want health care and number two, that the market places can work,” she said.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, email her at mlee@macon.com. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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