Thousands of state residents enrolling in expanded Medicaid under Obamacare
10/14/2013 - The Exponent Telegram. By Erin Beck.
The clock is ticking for those who still don’t have health insurance.
Now that two major components of Obamacare are rolling out, the uninsured have until Jan. 1 before tax penalties start to take effect.
The idea behind Obamacare includes expanding health insurance coverage in two ways — through the individual mandate and through the expansion of Medicaid.
Medicaid expansion in the area is seeing much faster gains in enrollment as of now. Meanwhile, whether the individual mandate successfully increases access to health care remains to be seen.
As part of Medicaid expansion, the state decided to send auto-enrollment notifications to newly eligible residents. Last month, DHHR sent out 118,000 letters to food stamp recipients and parents of children already covered by Medicaid.
More than 50,000 have sent back the enrollment letters so far, according to Jeremiah Samples, assistant to DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling.
“We’ve been able to alleviate a lot of pressure on our systems and our staff,” Samples said. “We’ve also been able to streamline the process for consumers.”
More than 1,400 of those were from Harrison County, as well as more than 700 from Upshur and about 450 from Lewis County.
It was a simple process, according to some new enrollees in Harrison County who spoke with The Exponent Telegram.
“All you had to do was check a box,” Jeffrey Hayes said. “They said I would receive it in December.”
Hayes works, but his employer doesn’t offer insurance, and he was worried about potential tax penalties before he found out about the Medicaid expansion.
His children benefit, as well.
“We were really happy to hear that,” Hayes said.
New Medicaid enrollees are also able to sign up in county offices or through wvinroads.org.
West Virginia has one of the highest enrollment rates among states that chose to expand Medicaid, according to Samples.
While Medicaid expansion has resulted in rapid enrollments, enrollment in the federal health insurance marketplace is a whole different picture so far.
Starting Oct. 1, West Virginia residents could compare plans offered through the health insurance marketplace, or exchange, and enroll with one application process.
But only one company is participating in the state insurance marketplace, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Enrollments have been low so far, but that doesn’t mean residents are choosing to opt for the tax penalty just yet.
Fred Earley, president of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield West Virginia, said several factors are at play.
The federal website that residents can enroll through has been down due to a high volume of visitors.
“It seems to be getting a little better as time goes along,” Earley said. “It’s a day-to-day approach.”
Federal workers took down the website, Healthcare.gov, to make changes early Thursday and also plan to work over the weekend, according to Earley.
“There’s not a rush on this,” he said. “People have time.”
Many calls to Highmark have been from people interested in just learning more, so they aren’t upset about the website being down, according to Earley.
To avoid tax penalties and make the Jan. 1 deadline, new enrollees would need to be signed up by mid-December.
“The calls have all been fairly courteous,” Earley said. “I think, overall, people are patient.”
Another factor in low enrollment numbers could be lack of awareness.
Several people who lack health insurance told The Exponent Telegram they hadn’t looked into signing up yet. Some didn’t know tax penalties started on Jan. 1; others were unaware the exchange opened on Oct. 1.