MISHAWAKA — Debate over the merits of the Affordable Care Act rages on in the halls of Congress.
Al Gutierrez, president of St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, isn’t going to get in the middle of that. “We here at St. Joseph don’t have the luxury of commentary,” he said.
Rather, officials at the Mishawaka hospital are focused on dealing with the law as it stands. And with the Jan. 1 deadline looming for implementation of the individual mandate — the controversial requirement that most everyone have health insurance — St. Joseph officials have opened a new office meant to help the public navigate the intricacies of the law.
“We want to act as a stabilizing force,” Gutierrez said Wednesday, Aug. 28, at the formal unveiling of the office.
He estimates some 15,000 people in and around northern Indiana, including Elkhart County, will have to get insurance from the health insurance exchanges taking shape per the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They include people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare — federal programs geared to the needy and the elderly — but who don’t get health insurance through their employers.
The office, called the St. Joseph Regional Medical Center Health Insurance Services Center, actually opened in July, while enrollment in plans offered through the health insurance exchanges doesn’t start until Oct. 1. But many are unaware of the specific requirements of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, and St. Joseph officials are trying to get the word out.
The office is meant to aid those potentially eligible for care under the provisions of the new law as well as others trying to sort out their health insurance options.
“The real key is educating people. What are their options?” said Sondra Gardetto, who helps manage the new office. “That’s been our biggest challenge: making sure people know what’s coming down the road.”
Around 30 percent of the public grasps the finer points of the ACA, Gutierrez estimates. The remaining 70 percent don’t, and he suspects the bloc includes those most potentially impacted by the law’s requirements.
St. Joseph won’t charge fees for those who use the new office, nor will the hospital receive any commission for directing clients to health care offerings. Aid recipients don’t even have to receive care at the hospital. St. Joseph officials view creation of the office as a public service — “stewardship,” as Gutierrez put it.
The St. Joseph effort seems to be unique in the Michiana area. Reps at Elkhart General Hospital and Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital didn’t immediately report plans afoot for a similiar sort of facility. Gutierrez indicated that neither state nor federal officials plan to create special offices to help the public navigate the ACA.
NO OBAMACARE DEBATE
Absent from Thursday’s event was debate over Obamacare. It’s long been the focus of red hot bickering between Democratic supporters who say it will improve the level of health care in the country and Republican foes who view the measure as costly government overreach.
Unless and until the health care overhaul is repealed or otherwise invalidated, Gutierrez said the new St. Joseph office will direct those who come in to the health care offerings best suited to their needs. That may be via the Affordable Care Act and health care exchanges, Medicaid, Medicare or some other program.
Gardetto said the jumping-off point for Indiana residents seeking health care coverage through the exchanges is the federal website www.healthcare.gov. Once enrollment in health plans starts on Oct. 1, she suspects offerings here from four providers.
Still, many particulars remain sketchy. Preliminary information indicates that health care exchange offerings in New York and California are priced significantly below current market offerings, Gutierrez said. Other details, though, won’t come into sharper focus until Oct. 1, when enrollment starts.
In October, St. Joseph plans to open an insurance services center in Plymouth as well. For more information go to www.sjmed.com/healthinsuranceservices.