Not Optimal

112213_not-optimalFor 73,000 Marylanders, the launching of the Affordable Care Act has brought with it a mix of excitement and trepidation.

According to Maryland Health Care Administration statistics, that is the number of people who will lose their current insurance plans due to new federal requirements for comprehensive coverage. However, the Obama administration says their plans will be replaced with better, stronger plans.

Under mounting pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, President Barack Obama addressed concerns over coverage drops after promises that insured Americans who elected to keep their existing coverage would be able to do so.

Obama promised a one-year extension on insurance plans that were to be dropped, something experts say he and Congress might not necessarily have the power to implement.

“As a practical matter, how this [the one-year extension] is going to all play out is a huge question,” said Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at Jewish Community Services, which has spent months educating the community about the ACA. “The president’s press conference
yesterday left largely unanswered how this is going to happen.”

In the next year, Paliath said, the practicality of the ACA will be put to the test. While those with job-sponsored insurance are largely fine, those with individual policies have the most at stake as the plan’s kinks are straightened out.

“They’re willing to pay for health insurance, but there’s only so much they can afford, and it may not be the comprehensive package,” she said. “I don’t know how you force the insurance to offer that benefit at a price that’s comparable to what they’re paying this year.”

At nonprofit HealthCare Access Maryland, which is tasked with reaching and signing up uninsured Marylanders in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, President and CEO Kathleen Westcoat said the group is far behind its goal.

With 217,000 uninsured Marylanders in its coverage area, HCAM’s goal in the first year is to sign up 18,000 to 20,000 people in the city and about 15,000 in the county. So far, Westcoat said, they have enrolled 300 people.

“Things are … they’re not optimal,” she said. “We really should be enrolling many more, and it’s largely due to the technical issues with the Web portal.”

For some people, these technological problems mean having to wait until January, February or even March to sign up. For these people, Westcoat said, every tech issue is a new worry.

However, Westcoat added, there is still plenty of time for those in the market for insurance to sign up for a plan. The deadline to enroll is March 31, 2014. Those who have not signed up by then will be fined.

“I can see why so many millions of people are frustrated,” said Larry Burgee, department chair and associate professor at Stevenson University’s Department of Information Systems.

Burgee said he has been using the website as an example in his e-commerce class of what not to do. When he asked his students to get information online about what plans were available to them, they came back with nothing.

Part of the problem with the process, he said, is that the websites — both Maryland’s and the federal’s — ask users for a lot of personal information up front before letting the customer see what kinds of options are available to them. Visiting the site for a general quote is not an option.

An e-commerce site “shouldn’t stop [the customer] at the door and ask them for a whole lot of personal information before they decide if you have something for them,” said Burgee. “No business would ever do that.”

Additionally, said Burgee, the system could have benefited from postponing the Oct. 1 launch in order to work out some of the glitches.

“I think it would have been much better for the president and for his legacy if he had just said we need one more year on it,” he said. “People now laugh at this. They don’t trust it. They don’t think there’s anything good about it, and when they go to the website there isn’t anything to convince them it is better [than they think].”

In the meantime, said JCS’s Paliath, her organization has been recommending to clients that they avoid the Web portal all together.

Said Paliath: “Our advice has been for people to just pick up and call.”

Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter — hnorris@jewishtimes.com
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter — mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

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