Editorial: The health, and health care, of thousands is at stake
Ideologically-driven Republicans in the state Senate are doing what they can to keep the public ignorant of the opportunities available to them under the Affordable Care Act. The act is the law of the land. By Jan. 1 of next year, almost everyone who lacks health insurance will have to purchase coverage or pay a penalty. Uninsured residents should be able to shop for coverage online on an exchange created by the federal government by the end of next month. Enrollment in plans listed on the exchange will begin Oct. 1, but few people know of the act’s requirements and the deadlines to meet them because Republican lawmakers have refused to accept millions in federal dollars meant to educate the public. That has to change. The health care, and health, of more than 125,000 New Hampshire residents is at stake.
The last Legislature passed a law making it illegal for the state to create a health care exchange, which is essentially a marketplace that allows people in need of health insurance to compare qualifying plans and find out whether they qualify for federal help in covering the cost of insurance.
Last winter, to get around that ban and give the state some say in what happens as the rest of the act is implemented, Gov. Maggie Hassan said the state would partner with the federal government to operate the exchange and educate the public about their options under it. The legislative ban on a state-run exchange specifically permits such a partnership, but time is running out for the state Department of Insurance to work with the feds on the exchange.
The federal grant to pay for the education effort is not chump change. It provides $300,000 for initial planning and a total of $5.3 million to, among other things, pay for trained “navigators” to guide shoppers through the process and help them make the best possible choice for them. The money is sitting there, waiting to be picked up, if only lawmakers would act. Next week, the Legislature’s joint Fiscal Committee will have an opportunity to accept the federal funds and begin the education process. It’s not only the uninsured who will benefit from having the information.
In addition to sliding-scale subsidies to help the uninsured purchase coverage, the Affordable Care Act also includes tax credits for businesses that agree to insure employees. Though no one with insurance need make any changes because of the law, some currently insured individuals may qualify for a subsidy or otherwise save money by shopping on the exchange. They too need to be told about their options and be helped with the decision process. Insurers and benefits management companies have, or are developing, websites that allow shoppers to compare and select plans, but tax credits and subsidies will only be available through the official federal/state exchange.
In New Hampshire, as in other small states, at least initially, consumer choice will be limited. So far, only one New Hampshire insurer, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, has agreed to participate in the exchange. The law requires that small businesses have a choice of policies by 2015, when it’s expected that insurers who are hanging back to see what happens, and those who need time to design new insurance products, will join the exchange.
The health insurance education campaign was slated to begin next month. Under the law, states are expected to use federal money to inform consumers about their health insurance options. Time is running out. The fiscal committee, which meets next Friday, should say yes to the federal grant.