As Obamacare deadline nears, some in Elkhart have questions

The deadline to sign up for coverage on the Obamacare exchange is March 31, so now's the time to act.

Posted on Feb. 26, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

ELKHART — The deadline to sign up for health coverage on the Obamacare website is about a month away.

With the clock ticking, that doesn't mean the public is scrambling furiously to enroll, though.

If an information session at Harrison College here on Monday, Feb. 24, is any indication, there's a steady trickle of people seeking coverage, or at least searching for more information as the March 31 sign-up deadline nears. But it doesn't seem to be overwhelming.

Want help applying for coverage on the online Obamacare exchange? Look here.

"We've been trying to pay medical and dental out of pocket," said Elkhart woman Kim Berkel, one of a handful who attended Monday's event. Now uninsured, if she can secure an affordable insurance plan via the marketplace, all the better.

Following are answers to a few key questions about the Affordable Care Act health care exchange and how enrollment is progressing in Elkhart County. The online exchange, famously problematic when it formally launched last Oct. 1, is a key element of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and meant to be a clearinghouse for affordable insurance for the working poor and others who don't have it.

March 31 is the last day to buy insurance coverage on the Obamacare exchange for 2014.

Q. Are people here in Elkhart County signing up?

A. Yes. Hard numbers for the county aren't available, but Menessah Nelson of Heart City Health Center and Damelis Naranjo of Community Action of Northeast Indiana, or CANI, said they've been keeping busy working one-on-one with would-be applicants. Nelson and Naranjo, on hand Monday as reps of their non-profit organizations, help the public navigate the Obamacare website, www.healthcare.gov, fill out the online application and sort through the varied health insurance offerings.

Meeting times at Heart City have been totally booked at times, Nelson said, while Naranjo, who also helps staff the Elkhart General Hospital Health Coverage Enrollment Center, reported "pretty steady" contacts. 

At a minimum, many are seeking information on what the legal requirements are, even if they aren't procuring health care coverage, Nelson said. Per Obamacare, the mandate requiring individuals to have coverage — or face fines — went into effect Jan. 1, though there are exceptions for the poor and others.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 47,735 people across Indiana who had selected an insurance plan via the marketplace as of Feb. 1, up from 30,443 as of Dec. 28, 3,492 as of Nov. 30 and 701 as of Nov. 2. There are an estimated 425,499 uninsured people across Indiana and 11,160 in Elkhart County who would qualify for health exchange coverage, according to figures from EnrollAmerica.org and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationwide, the number of people who had selected an insurance plan as of Feb. 1 was 3.3 million.

Q. The numbers signing up nationally lag the Congressional Budget Office estimate of 4.38 million through January and don't appear to be on track to reach the 7.07 million projection by the end of March. Why is that?

A. Here locally, some, notably younger people, are opting to pay the fine for not being insured instead, cheaper for many than actually shelling out for a plan. "They can do the math," said Nelson.

For 2014, the fine outlined in the Affordable Care Act is $95 per adult and $47.50 per child, with a family maximum of $285 or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater. The max fine increases up to $2,085 or 2.5 percent of household income by 2016, and Nelson hopes that larger potential financial hit encourages the uninsured to get coverage.

Others are simply taking more time to consider their options, more than what the feds anticipated. "They're going to talk to their husband, they're going to talk to their wife," said Naranjo.

The cold, cold weather, too, has deterred some, as have the glitches, gradually being fixed, that beset www.healthcare.gov when it formally launched last October, Nelson said. The weather and technical issues lead her to believe the March 31 deadline may be extended.

The enrollment period for plans for 2015 starts Nov. 15 this year and goes on until Jan. 15, 2015.

Q. Speaking of glitches, how is the exchange website these days, www.healthcare.gov?

A. "It has its days," said Naranjo.

Seriously, both Naranjo and Nelson said it's gotten better, though it's still hardly perfect. Nelson noted a series of upgrades to the website earlier this month.

Even if it is improved, the website still can't shake the bad rep from the flawed roll-out. No way was Berkel, the woman who sought assistance at Monday's information, going to try to navigate the site by herself. "Didn't even want to attempt it," she said. "I heard it can be very complicated."

Q. Is the insurance truly affordable, as implied by the health overhaul's name?

A. That depends.

Berkel learned, to her dismay, that coverage for two of her twentysomething sons would be $383 per month, outside the realm of the affordable for her. "That just doesn't seem right," she said.

Krystal Anderson, who also assists applicants with Heart City, said the price of insurance depends on a multitude of variables, including household income, age and many other factors. Government subsidies and cost-share reductions are available to help cover insurance costs, again depending on income, family size and other factors.

"It's all house by house," Anderson said. "You never see the same thing."

Amy Kanouse an agent with MDwise, one of four companies offering health plans via the marketplace here in Elkhart County, said it's too expensive for some she counsels and a godsend for others. One satisfied customer with a pre-existing condition was able to secure coverage that cost around $500 less per month than a previous plan.

Q. Whar sort of people are applying?

A. Those targeted for coverage via the exchanges are the uninsured in households with income of roughly 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, from $23,850 per year to $95,400 for a family of four, according to 2014 federal poverty guidelines.

Nelson and Naranjo said that works out to include the working poor, people perhaps who only have part-time jobs or full-time workers who don't get coverage from their employers.

Kanouse said those she's helped have ranged from a 19-year-old young woman who works part-time, middle-aged people with part-time or full-time jobs and those in their 50s and 60s living off retirement income and not yet eligible for Medicare.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.

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