SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — State officials and health care advocates are gearing up for Tuesday’s launch of the federally run online insurance marketplace where Utah residents can shop for health coverage from private insurers.
Under President Barack Obama’s health law, almost all Americans will be required to have health insurance starting next year, and the online marketplaces opening Oct. 1 are a hallmark of the legislation.
In Utah, state officials opted to have the federal government run the marketplace for individuals while the state runs the insurance marketplace for small businesses that has been up and running since 2009.
The exchanges for individuals offer a place for people to find coverage if they aren’t covered by an employer or a government plan such as Medicaid.
As the launch date for the new exchanges approaches, the Obama administration has ramped up its efforts to promote the law while Republicans in Congress have pushed to derail it.
Federal officials have already poured almost $2 million in grants into Utah in recent months to promote public awareness about the law and train workers to help navigate customers through the new marketplaces.
Until the system is up and running, it’s hard to predict how many people will sign up for coverage, particularly on the first day, said Jason Stevenson with the Utah Heath Policy Project, which received one of the grants.
“Some people will sign up immediately. They’re the people who actually, the Affordable Care Act is focused on, the people who have been kind of shut out from the insurance market for years and years, and this is finally their chance to get insurance,” Stevenson said. “It’s like Christmas for them.”
Most of the first-day activity at https://www.healthcare.gov will likely be people simply exploring the new exchanges and doing a little comparison shopping, he said.
UHPP, which advocates for affordable health coverage, has been spreading awareness about the coming changes for several years. Stevenson said attention on the law has been much more focused in recent weeks, particularly at the outreach events his group hosts.
“I’m noticing the crowds getting bigger. I’m noticing the questions getting more specific, and I’m noticing that people are taking notes and writing things down,” he said. “It’s just becoming very real.”
Stevenson cautioned that expectations shouldn’t be too high on day one, noting that “anytime you flip the switch on a website, there could be some glitches.”
“We’re prepared to develop workarounds in the first couple days if they happen,” he said.
In Utah, one glitch has already been discovered.
Consumers are supposed to be directed to the right place to find coverage no matter where they start.
For example, if someone applies through the exchange but it’s determined they’re eligible for Medicaid coverage, their application is supposed to be seamlessly transferred to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which administers the program.
Federal officials have reported a technical program will keep applications from being sent from the exchange to DWS until November, at the earliest, said DWS Associate Director Kevin Burt.
“They’re held in kind of a limbo,” Burt told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday.
Those applications will be on hold, but once the glitch is fixed, those applications will be sent, even if that person has already started a new application. At that point, DWS officials will have to compare both applications, further slowing the process for those people.
DWS doesn’t know how many people will be affected, Burt said, but his agency is working to make sure they can direct people to their best starting point to avoid having too many people snagged by the glitch.
Mike Fierberg, a regional spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the systems to transfer the data are being tested but contingency plans are in place.
Stevenson, with UHPP, notes there’s a six-month window for people to enroll, so the glitch is not catastrophic.
The biggest thing to keep in mind for Tuesday, Stevenson said, is that Oct. 1 “is the starting gun for the consumers out there.”
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