Palm Beach County residents are flocking to find more information about Obamacare despite congressional hearings and media reports warning that problems with the website could turn off potential customers.
More than 200 people showed up to an Affordable Care Act presentation last week at Delray Full Service Center. Organizers had expected 50. The navigators, who were there to sign up people for plans, had to call for back up, said Andrea Stephenson who supervises a group of the counselors in Palm Beach County on behalf of the Health Council of Southeast Florida.
There’s no doubt that the failure of the healthcare.gov website is hampering enrollment. But navigators say that many of their clients are still learning about how the law works so they aren’t yet deterred by website problems.
“We’re still getting calls from people (and) they’re saying to us: ‘I don’t know anything about this health insurance. Is there something you can help us with?’ ” said Jodi Ray, program director of Florida Covering Kids & Families. She supervises 110 navigators across the state. “We’re spending a lot of time talking about what health insurance is, what all of this is. There’s an extensive education component of this that goes way beyond filling out an application.”
Many of the most persistent clients are Floridians who have no insurance now and maybe have never had a plan, said John Foley, the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County who runs its navigator program.
“The people that we are seeing — they’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “They’re sick, and they want insurance.”
His group has also been pitching health insurance to young adults – a key demographic needed to balance the sick, who are expected to sign up in droves.
About 100 Florida Atlantic University students attended a recent event hosted by the Legal Aid Society.
The navigators working through the health council have several events at the Palm Beach Medical Society on this month’s calendar as well as visits to a family health fair in Boynton Beach and an enrollment event in Delray Beach. The group is also partnering with hospitals in Palm Beach and Martin counties. Navigators will work with the hospital to try to get insurance for clients who have been getting their medical care through the emergency room.
While there are many education events scheduled, so far, enrollment numbers are low and the process has been frustratingly slow.
Just last week, Foley’s navigators got their first client through the entire enrollment process. That included helping the customer determine whether he was eligible for financial help, looking through all the plan options and choosing one.
After weeks in which the website was down, locked up or too slow, Stephenson’s navigators have also started counted successes in signing up people online.
“Enrollment is happening,” she said. “It is not happening at the pace, of course, that we would like.”
The Obama administration is releasing the first enrollment numbers this week. Grant recipients will not share any enrollment numbers of their own.
When the site is working too slowly or not at all, counselors help clients fill out paper applications or dial into a phone center.
“Everybody who walks through the door gets assisted,” Ray said.
But there’s no way around the website. Whether people try to apply online, by phone or through a paper application, the information must ultimately be keyed into the same flawed website.
“What we’ve been told by everybody is that it just winds up on someone’s desk who has to use the same system again,” Foley said.
Navigators set enrollment goals as part of the application for millions of dollars from the federal government. Now it seems impossible for some groups to meet those goals.
Foley has been vocal about the disastrous website. Just days into the launch, he suggested the whole site should be taken down until it could be entirely fixed.
Yet he said it’s too soon for his organization to worry about missing its target of 3,000 people across Palm Beach, Hendry, Martin and Okeechobee counties.
“If the website actually works well, I think it will be less of concern,” he said.
Health and Humans Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a congressional hearing that the administration had always expected enrollment would be slow at first. The federal government projected its goals based on the Massachusetts health reform model, where enroll built slowly and then exponentially as the deadline approached.
Dec. 15 is the last date a consumer can sign up and pay the premium for insurance kicking in Jan. 1. The enrollment window lasts until March 31 to get coverage during 2014.
HHS has refused to release its pre-launch enrollment goals other than an annual target of 7 million.
“There’s no question that given our flawed launch of healthcare.gov it will be a very small number,” Sebelius told a congressional committee.
Apart from the website’s problems, the nature of choosing a health-care plan through the online marketplace makes a quick decision less likely.
Employees getting coverage from work tend to have few plan choices, and sometimes the only difference is the deductible. In contrast, the average Floridian shopping the marketplace must choose from among 100 plans.
Florida navigators say clients are making two or three appointments, sometimes, before they are ready to select a plan.
“It’s not necessarily a technology issue” that’s preventing consumers from selecting a plan on their first visit or their first shot using the website, Ray said.
“It appears that people really want to think about it,” she said. “We don’t want to press them into making a quick decision when, at this point, they don’t have to. They can be thoughtful about it.”