Obamacare took a small but visible step forward on Monday with the launch of a consumer information website, a precursor to the health insurance exchanges that will allow millions to shop online for health insurance starting this fall. The exchanges are the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's health care reform law.
The Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a new version of HealthCare.gov that enables small business owners and individuals who don't get health insurance at work to begin reviewing how they will comparison shop and secure financial assistance when the health insurance exchanges, also called health insurance marketplaces, open for business. The department also opened a toll-free call center to answer consumer questions about the law.
The health insurance exchanges are scheduled to begin operating on Oct. 1, leaving the Obama administration and its allies just over three months to improve the public's knowledge of how health care reform and its coverage options work. Opinion polls illustrate not only that opponents of the law continue to outnumber its supporters, but also that the public poorly understands the law. The uninsured and the poor, those for whom Obamacare could bring the greatest benefit, know less about it than others, polls also show.
"The new website and toll-free number have a simple mission: to make sure every American who needs health coverage has the information they need to make choices that are right for themselves and their families -- or their businesses," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a press release.
The new consumer tools made available Monday are a small part of a larger push beginning this summer to publicize the health insurance exchanges and the benefits available to some people under the law. The administration plans a major, government-wide campaign leading up to Oct. 1, which will be bolstered by the efforts of states like California and private organizations such as Enroll America, a coalition of health care industry organizations and nonprofits supportive of the health care reform law.
Visitors to the new HealthCare.gov can enter some basic information about their health insurance status, where they live and how much they earn to get preliminary facts about whether they qualify to shop for coverage on the exchanges and whether they are eligible for financial assistance. The website also includes a chat feature for consumers to ask questions.
Under the law, people who meet the law's standards and don't get coverage from their jobs will be able to choose among health insurance plans sold through the exchange marketplaces.
People who earn up to four times the federal poverty level, which is $45,960 for a single person this year, qualify for tax credits to defray the cost of health insurance. People who earn up to 133 percent of poverty, which is $15,282 for an individual this year, can enroll in Medicaid if they live in a state that is expanding the program under the law. Some small businesses also can apply for tax credits when they offer coverage to their workers.
In addition to the website, the administration also opened a telephone hotline at (800) 318-2596 to answer consumers' questions in English, Spanish and more than 150 other languages, according to a press release. The department also established a Spanish-langauge version of its website at CuidadoDeSalud.gov.
The health insurance exchanges are slated to begin operating on Oct. 1, and open enrollment will run through the end of March. Health insurance plans purchased via the exchanges will take effect as early as Jan. 1.
The administration has much work left to ensure those exchanges are up and running on time. The federal government will be in charge of the exchanges in 34 states, while 16 states and the District of Columbia will manage their own, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The health care reform law called for states to operate the health insurance exchanges open to their residents, but resistance -- mostly from Republican governors and legislators -- left federal authorities in charge in many places.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm, released a report last week crediting the administration with its results made so far, but casting doubt on the deadline for opening the exchanges. "Much progress has been made, but much remains to be accomplished within a relatively short amount of time," the GAO report said. "Whether these efforts will assure the timely and smooth implementation of the exchanges by October 2013 cannot yet be determined."
During the first year the health insurance exchanges are open, the Congressional Budget Office projects 7 million people will use them to buy coverage, while an additional 8 million will enroll in Medicaid. By 2023, 27 million fewer people will be uninsured because of the law, the CBO estimates.