News Column

Obamacare Insurance Deadline Arrives

December 23, 2013

By Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park Press, N.J.

The latest Obamacare deadline has arrived.

Consumers who need to buy health insurance coverage beginning Jan. 1 must sign up by today -- an exercise that observers say isn't as daunting as it was a month ago.

Those who have successfully navigated the process sounded frazzled, but relieved. Sometimes the HealthCare.gov website didn't work. The deadline snuck up on them fast. For those whose income makes them eligible for subsidies, it may pay off, if they can get through.

"I'm getting better insurance coverage than I've had in recent years," said Koren McDaniel, 28, of Toms River. She was paying $94 a month for bare-bones coverage offered by her employer. She now expects to pay $83 a month, after a tax break, for coverage from AmeriHealth New Jersey that is more comprehensive.

Navigators and insurance companies said they are working closely with consumers signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, a law commonly referred to as Obamacare.

The law is designed to provide insurance to more than 900,000 New Jerseyans who were uninsured and another 800,000 New Jerseyans who were covered by policies bought in the individual or small employer marketplace.

They are being directed to HealthCare.gov, a website operated by the federal government that allows them to choose among plans offered by AmeriHealth, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey. Consumers can buy directly from the insurance companies. But to be eligible for a tax break, they need to purchase a plan through the exchange.

Consumers who don't meet today's deadline can continue to sign up, but those policies won't take effect until Feb. 1. Open enrollment lasts until March 31. Most Americans who don't have health insurance will be charged a fee.

Joe DeLillo lucked out. His employer no longer had enough workers to qualify for a group insurance plan, forcing him into the health exchange. Not that he shed a tear. His premiums had climbed from $109 a week to $155 a week -- more than $670 a month -- and his doctors increasingly didn't accept his insurance.

His new policy from Horizon will cost $364 a month -- a discount due to the federal subsidy for which he expects to qualify.

"It's a little high, but still, it's a lower rate (than before)," said DeLillo, 57, of Toms River. "I practically gave myself a little pay raise."

Up to now, the rollout of Obamacare has been disastrous. The website, launched when open enrollment began Oct. 1, didn't work properly. And many consumers are learning that they likely will need to pay more out of pocket for health care.

Policies couldn't be kept

That was only the start. President Barack Obama was called to task for comments he made assuring consumers that if they liked their health insurance plan they could keep it. The truth was, many of their policies didn't meet the law's more rigorous standards and wouldn't be renewed. New Jersey insurers in recent days have made it clear: They are phasing out their 2013 policies beginning Jan. 1.

Insurers said they are trying to accommodate their new customers. Horizon and Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey, for example, said it is urging its customers to pay their first month's bill by Dec. 31, but it would extend the payment's deadline until Jan. 10.

Jersey Shore organizations helping consumers enroll said they are busy. About 100 residents signed up for an event last Saturday at Ocean Health Initiatives Inc. in Lakewood to search for insurance, said Beatriz Patino, health exchange coordinator for the health center.

"We have our good days and our bad days with the website," Patino said. Now, "we're getting calls from people who say, 'I don't have health insurance, can you help me?' They're really grateful for this huge change."

They're more grateful once they make it through the cumbersome process. McDaniel, a restaurant server and substitute teacher, started in October. But the website mistakenly said she was eligible for Medicaid, and she couldn't seem to start over.

She eventually got in touch with Patino, who successfully submitted a new application. McDaniel enrolled Friday -- with three days to spare.

"The whole site needed time to get all its kinks out before they actually launched it," she said. "I was beginning to worry about a lapse in my insurance coverage. I feel relieved. I feel a lot better about it."

Original headline: Obamacare deadline is here; have you signed up?


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Source: (c)2013 the Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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