October 26, 2014
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RI makes big final push for Obamacare
John Grow
Warwick Beacon photo
SO MANY CHOICES: Recently retired Arlene Mariano searches the HealthSourceRI website for a new health insurance plan at an Enrollment Assistance community outreach program in Warwick last week.

At an Enrollment Assistance event at the Warwick Library last week, part of the final drive by HealthSourceRI to increase the number of Rhode Islanders with health insurance, Arlene Mariano was looking for some answers to her brand new problem.

Mariano recently retired from Cox Communications. She still has a ways to go before she is eligible for Medicare, and she needed coverage right now.

It had to be a comprehensive plan, it had to have a low deductible and the premiums had to fit her new fixed income.

But almost as important: Arlene really wanted to keep her doctor.

She had just settled into one of the eight computer work stations set up around a circle of tables in the library's small conference room. All the computers were busy and there were five people waiting for a chance to get to one. Three HSRI representatives moved from station to station, offering assistance and answering questions.

"I know it's asking a lot. My income went from somewhere up here," she marked a spot in the air, "to somewhere down here. I know what I need; I just hope I can find it."

In about 10 minutes she reported she'd found several plans that seemed to work for her, but she wanted to do more research.

About 15 minutes after that she was almost beaming.

"Well, I've narrowed it down to two. They both have low deductibles. And I just checked and found out they both let me keep my doctor."

When asked about her monthly premium, she very quietly announced that she would be paying almost nothing.

With less than four weeks to go before the Affordable Care Act's first year enrollment period ends, the process to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance, which President Barack Obama has often referred to as a marathon, is now turning into a sprint.

As it rounds the final turn and heads for the March 31 finish line, Rhode Island's version of the program, named HealthSourceRI, is already ahead of projections.

Said HSRI's Dara Chadwick in a phone interview last week, "Based on population, we are now second in the nation, right behind Connecticut, in the percentage of people we have insured through HSRI and expanded Medicaid in Rhode Island."

Enrollment began Oct. 1 last year. At that time, statistics prepared for the Kaiser Foundation by the Urban Institute showed 88 percent of all Rhode Islanders were already covered by their employer's health care policies.

Of the 120,000 uninsured remaining, it was hoped that 45,000 to 50,000 could be covered this first year by a combination of the newly expanded Medicaid Program (which now covers income earners making up to 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Line [FPL]), and a new set of competitive insurance plans offering better coverage and subsidized premiums for people making up to 400 percent of the FPL.

In actual numbers, that works out to Medicaid now providing free health care insurance to single people earning up to $15,856, couples $21,404, or a family of four $32,499 a year.

And for higher wage earners, premium subsidies are now available for single people making up to $45,960, couples $62,040, or $94,200 for a family of four, by issuing instant tax credits.

According to Enroll America, a non-profit, non-partisan organization specializing in information on health care, 91 percent of everyone in Kent County, and 92 percent of those in Providence County, fall into that 400 percent or less area, and should qualify for some type of assistance to help pay insurance premiums.

As of the first week of February, the latest data available, 35,821 individuals had signed up for free health care under the new Medicaid guidelines, and an additional 16,513 had enrolled with HSRI; putting the program ahead of projections by a couple of thousand enrollees with the better part of a month to go.

And that's not counting the small businesses with less than 50 employees that have purchased a plan through HSRI.

Businesses, Chadwick explained, do not have to meet the March 31 deadline. They can purchase a plan from HSRI – either directly or through their insurance broker – whenever their current policy expires.

To continue the drive for health insurance enrollment, HSRI scheduled a series of special Enrollment Assistance events like the one last week in Warwick.

"We've arranged for some of our specialists to set up meetings in communities around the state and help people select an insurance plan for themselves and their families, and to help small business owners pick a plan for their employees," Chadwick said.

The remaining scheduled Enrollment Assistance Events are:

l Today, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at The Boys & Girls Club of East Providence, 115 Williams Avenue;

l Monday, March 3, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Woonsocket Public Library, Woonsocket;

l Tuesday, March 4, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Rogers Free Library, Bristol;

l Thursday, March 6, 4 to 8 p.m., at Exeter Public Library, Exeter;

l Saturday, March 8, at AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence, designed for artists, students and adults;

l Thursday, March 13, at the Pawtucket Public Library, Pawtucket, designed for members of Rhode Island's Latino community.

A new advertising campaign also kicked off last week to continue building awareness for the program.

The ACA, known as Obamacare, became law four years ago. Modeled after a 2006 Massachusetts state health care program to curb skyrocketing costs by drastically reducing its uninsured rolls, Obamacare sought to replicate the process everywhere else.

But pushback from Republicans in Congress and in several state legislatures resulted in many states opting out.

All the fighting, which even a 2012 Supreme Court ruling could not assuage, has continued to generate a tremendous amount of national press, much of it negative, and much of which merely succeeded in confusing people about an already complex program.

That's the situation, Chadwick said, this last information and awareness campaign for HSRI is designed to help clear up.


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