The federal government has awarded five New Jersey organizations $2 million to pay for outreach efforts to get state residents to enroll in the new health insurance exchanges. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Regional Director Dr. Jaime Torres sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss the upcoming enrollment period.
Torres said the funds will go toward navigator programs, which are meant to help people sign up for insurance through the federal health exchanges. “We have five groups here in New Jersey and this will be in addition to the federally qualified health clinics. We have 20 in New Jersey who receive $3.6 million. They have 125 sites. So these are two groups that are funded by the federal government to enroll through open enrollment,” he explained.
Representatives will cover all 21 counties of New Jersey, using plans submitted in the grant applications. “They will be on the ground, they will be in the communities, they will be also talking to people in different languages to make sure that we can reach the 900,000 people who are uninsured in New Jersey,” Torres said.
Open enrollment begins Oct. 1 and continues through March 31. Some national surveys have shown many people are still unaware that the enrollment period is approaching. “We know there’s a lack of information and misinformation and we’re on the ground, our department, in many partners in the Garden State to make sure we get the word out,” Torres said.
The health insurance companies that have applied to sell insurance through the exchanges haven’t been announced yet, but Torres said an official announcement will be made soon. He said the insurance companies have been vetted to make sure they follow the rules laid out by the federal government. Four New Jersey companies have reportedly applied — Aetna, AmeriHealth, Horizon and Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey, though Torres couldn’t confirm that information.
Affordability for residents is important in health exchange insurance, according to Torres. He said the companies will have to abide by the rules to offer affordable coverage to everyone who applies. “We’re gonna offer tax breaks, tax subsidies to pay for the health coverage for the people who apply and also small businesses. That’s an important part that we need to make sure the people know about,” he said.
Some worry that small business owners will lay off employees or pay the penalty instead of offer health insurance. Torres said the majority of small businesses in the country have fewer than 50 employees and therefore don’t have to offer health insurance to employees and the majority of those with more than 50 employees already offer health insurance.
Torres also said that was the worry in Massachusetts before that state began a similar program and it never materialized. “That’s a great litmus test to see what would happen nationally. So we continue to offer assistance, background information to make sure that no business will drop employees. It’s not good business either,” he said.
A little more than 900,000 uninsured individuals will be eligible to get insurance through the health care exchanges starting Oct. 1 and more than 700,000 of them will be able to get either Medicaid or tax credits to pay for it, according to Torres.
“The goal of our department is to get 100 percent of those 900,000. We’re gonna be working day in and day out until Oct. 1,” Torres said.
While Torres said there will likely be some bugs when the enrollment period begins Oct. 1, there is plenty of time for people to sign on to the programs. “This is gonna last until March 31. We have a lot of time to get to those New Jerseyans who have been waiting for this moment,” he said.
For more information about the health care exchange program, call 800-318-2596 or visit www.healthcare.gov.