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With the Obamacare website still not working, navigator organizations focus on education

Last modified: 10/20/2013 11:39:07 PM
Some New Hampshire residents interested in enrolling in the new health insurance marketplace are still waiting to hear whether they are eligible for subsidies and tax credits toward the cost of coverage, having used a paper application to circumvent a slow and glitch-plagued government website.

The website is supposed to be one way many of the 170,000 people without insurance in New Hampshire can get health insurance through the new marketplace – the main goal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Under the law, people without health insurance as of March 31 face a fine.

New Hampshire opted not to set up its own insurance markets. The site is being run by the federal government, which also provided grant funds to train people as navigators and assisters to help walk enrollees through the application process.

Since Oct. 1, staff members at Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin have met with 92 residents about enrolling for coverage through the new marketplace, said Brandon Gilbert, outreach and enrollment assister. They have tried with two people to go through the online application process but couldn’t get through either time. The federal site wasn’t working properly as recently as yesterday morning, when he tried to apply using his own information, he said.

If the website worked as designed, when an applicant entered his or her income information, they would receive immediate feedback on whether they are eligible for financial assistance, and if so, for how much. Instead, Gilbert and other navigators have given people paper applications to complete and mail to a processing center, which is supposed to mail the applicant back that feedback. Gilbert said he has asked residents to call when their eligibility packet arrives; so far, no one has called.

(The Kaiser Family Foundation developed an online calculator that determines subsidy eligibility based on state of residence, income and family size. It’s available at kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/.)

Gilbert and another Berlin health center staff member were trained through the BiState Primary Care Association, which has 11 navigators and 10 consumer assistance application counselors across the state.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England trained seven existing employees as navigators and has hired and trained three new staff members, said Jennifer Frizzell, policy adviser for the organization.

In the first week of enrollment, one navigator in Manchester had 45 appointments with people interested in the program, but she wasn’t able to enroll anyone online because of the glitches, Frizzell said, at a meeting earlier this month with the state’s Health Exchange Advisory Board.

Navigators there are using the paper applications as well, but they are not telling people to submit them. Instead, they are using the papers and appointments to educate people about how health insurance works and the terms they will need to understand, such as premiums and copays, and how the tax credits and subsidies will work, Frizzell said. The navigators then schedule a follow-up appointment for people to return later this month, she said.

The largest frustration for the people Gilbert has met with in Berlin is hearing that he can’t yet give them an accurate estimate of their potential costs, he said. And he also hasn‘t been able to find information about specific plans’ cost, he added – neither on the federal site nor on the website for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is selling the plans.

“A lot of people really would like to do the online application,” he said. “We’ve been taking phone numbers and telling people we’ll definitely get back to them when the website is working better.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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