On Oct. 1, the final major phase of the Affordable Care Act kicks in. That is when enrollment in a state health exchange begins for all citizens who do not have employer-sponsored health insurance or who are not covered by the military or any public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The goal of Ohio’s health exchange, which is being set up by the federal government, is to provide a convenient online marketplace where private insurers will compete for the business of the 1.3 million Ohioans who lack health insurance and thousands of others who buy health insurance on their own. Coverage takes effect Jan. 1.
Along with the so-called individual mandate, the exchange is a new approach to health coverage. According to the state insurance department, 12 companies will offer about 200 plans on the exchange. Getting accurate information about the available plans, understanding the options and making reasonable choices promise to be challenging tasks, especially for buyers who may be participating in the insurance market for the first time, have language and other difficulties or are unfamiliar with the technology.
Federal funding has been made available for “navigators” to play the critical role of getting the word out about the exchange, guiding consumers to the right information and helping them understand their coverage options, eligibility for subsidies and other requirements.
The role may sound easier than it is. As the Kaiser Family Foundation’s national tracking polls indicate, a majority of the uninsured, a primary target of the program, knows next to nothing about the exchanges. Equally disheartening, opponents of the law have mounted a determined campaign to block federal funding to implement the law.
Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it will award about $3 million to five nonprofit organizations in Ohio, including the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, to assist with navigator activities, such as organizing information fairs, facilitating access to the online market and assisting non-English speaking communities. A separate grant of $3.7 million also may enable qualified health centers to perform some outreach and education.
The awards are welcome, without question. Still, they are meager for the massive mobilization necessary to raise awareness and guide consumers through a difficult transition. It is a shame that Gov. John Kasich and the state Department of Insurance are leaving to the federal government the full responsibility of informing Ohioans about options that will have significant health-care and pocket-book implications for them.