There are just over two weeks left to sign up for Obamacare or to switch plans. Jan. 31 is the deadline. While the number of people signing up during this open enrollment period is outpacing last year’s, there are still many — notably Latinos — who have no insurance at all. Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Jackie Cornell-Bechelli spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Why did Health and Human Services extend the deadline again this year?
Cornell-Bechelli: We extended the deadline for coverage for Jan. 1 because of the surge of activity that we saw — both in person, on their phone and on our website. When that Dec. 15 deadline hit, people really just came out of the rafters looking to get covered, so we extended it for a few days to make sure everyone who was in the queue could get covered for Jan. 1.
Williams: There’s a penalty for people who didn’t sign up before Jan. 1, right?
Cornell-Bechelli: There’s a penalty for not having coverage. So, if you have more than two months of uncovered time, you will be faced with a penalty this year which is $695 or 2.5 percent when you file your taxes. It’s important to note though that you can still get enrolled today by the deadline of Jan. 31 and you can just file an exemption and just say, “I got coverage, I was only not covered for this short window of time in the month of January. I’m covered now for Feb. 1.” That exemption will happen when you file your taxes. You just have to fill that paperwork out.
Williams: How many people signed up so far in New Jersey?
Cornell-Bechelli: We’re really pleased with our numbers so far. We’re at 260,000 New Jerseyans who have signed up for this year. It’s great. We’re exceeding where we were at the end of last year’s open enrollment period. But, there’s still plenty of work to do as you mentioned, specifically in the Latino community and in communities of color at large.
Williams: What are the issues in the Latino community that make it more difficult for them to be signing up?
Cornell-Bechelli: It’s not more difficult for them to sign up, I think for us it’s a matter of connecting.
Williams: Are there barriers that they feel are preventing them from doing so?
Cornell-Bechelli: I think in many ways it’s a trust issue and it’s an education issue. So how can they hear a message from a trusted source, someone that they know and they value. I could have the best presentation and make the best pitch in the whole world, but if they don’t have a relationship with me, or anyone for that matter, why would they get invested? Why would they get covered? So for us we have been working with faith leaders, community partners, so that the message of coverage and the benefits of coverage are coming from someone they know — a friend. We found that that works for any community, particularly in the Latino community.
Williams: Are there metrics to prove that people who are covered do better than people who aren’t? That they stay healthier?
Cornell-Bechelli: Absolutely. So we know with certainty that all of the prevention messages that are in the Affordable Care Act, all of the coverage that you get, whether that’s getting a flu shot or a wellness visit, we’re seeing almost twice the return in terms of dollars and in health for people. That people are just taking advantage of those things and the metrics are there to prove it.
Williams: What about the young people who think they’re immortal? The 26 and up crowd?
Cornell-Bechelli: Well, what I have to say to them, and I’m still part of that bucket, is remember it’s not just about an accident or god forbid a cancer or something like that. It’s about your wellness. You’re at the gym, you sprain your ankle, you hurt your ACL, you live a very active, very busy life. So having the security of coverage for when you’re out snowboarding, or when you’re out dancing and you twist an ankle, it can really make or break a young person’s financial security. Not having coverage for many young people and for many people who live paycheck to paycheck that sprained ankle could be pretty sizable to their budgets. So encouraging them to be healthy.