Groups brace for more Ohioans seeking health plans

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — For Ohioans seeking to get insured under the federal health care law, October was homework month and November was for browsing plans.

Expect to see more action in December.

Groups who are helping residents gain coverage say they are preparing for the pace to pick up in the third month of open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act as more residents try to enroll before next year.

"We have a lot of lookers who are checking out plans and comparing prices and the types of plans available in their area," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. The organization and its partners received almost $2 million in federal grant money to help people establish coverage.

The consortium has about 80 people trained to assist consumers. And while Hamler-Fugitt said it's impossible to predict how many people will sign up in December, she knows the groups don't have enough helpers.

"We should have thousands," she said. "This is a modest, humble, grass-roots effort."

More than 1.5 million Ohio residents, or about 14 percent, lack insurance.

The federal law covers the uninsured through a combination of subsidized private plans and expanded Medicaid. Consumers were supposed to be able to apply and enroll online into the new marketplace. But the federal website serving 36 states, including Ohio, froze up the very day it launched. Fewer than 27,000 people were able to sign up during October in the federally administered states and 79,000 others in state-run programs.

Just 1,150 Ohio residents successfully picked plans, federal officials said.

Hamler-Fugitt has described many of those coming to them as older residents who were previously middle-income earners. They were downsized during the economic downturn and now have lower-paying jobs. Many depend on medication, with chronic or pre-existing conditions.

To pay their premiums, they have used their credit cards or spent retirement funds or savings, she said. They also tend to have huge, unpaid medical bills.

Most of the counselors' time has been spent educating people about private health insurance and the industry's terminology, Hamler-Fugitt said. Then, it's helping people figure out what level of insurance they can afford.

"We're looking at a minimum of three to five encounters with a person before they are going to be comfortable picking a plan themselves," she said.

Consumers have until the end of March to choose a health care plan to avoid tax penalties, but they must sign up by Dec. 23 if they want coverage by Jan. 1.

Hamler-Fugitt said part of the challenge of signing people up is making sure they pay the first month's premium so their coverage can kick in next year.

"A lot of folks are scrimping and saving," she said. "It's the holiday season."

The consortium has seen a number of residents who do not qualify for tax subsidies to purchase insurance in the new insurance marketplace, though they are likely eligible for Medicaid coverage under state's expansion of the program.

Those potential Medicaid enrollees can sign up beginning Dec. 9, the state has said.