Obamacare enrollment has 'lot of ground to cover'
Students barely glanced at Beth Newman when she set up shop this week in the lobby of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to promote the Affordable Care Act.
Newman, a federally funded navigator, is part of a last-minute push to get the uninsured to sign up for health insurance under the law. Open enrollment ends March 31 for anyone wanting coverage this year under President Obama's signature achievement.
“It's really tough,” said Newman, who in an hour at the Downtown school on Tuesday evening spoke to one person. Over a two-hour window earlier that day, she provided information to six people.
Her experience underscores challenges the law's advocates confront in persuading uninsured young adults to enroll for coverage.
The government is spending millions of dollars on TV commercials in markets with large numbers of uninsured, such as Pittsburgh, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and sending officials to sign-up events. The goal is to enroll 6 million Americans this year.
“We're heading to the finish line, and there's still a lot of ground to cover,” said Matt Eyles, executive vice president at Avalere Health, a Washington health care consulting company analyzing enrollment numbers.
Avalere Health estimated Pennsylvania needs to sign 354,000 people to provide its share of newly insured to meet the nationwide goal. By the end of January, 123,000 had signed up, according to the Obama administration.
Affordable Care Act Week
About 4 million Americans enrolled in plans through state and federal websites as of last week, the administration said. If a surge of signups materializes, the government could meet its goal, Eyles said.
Advocacy groups such as Enroll America, which operates in Pennsylvania and 10 other states, plan to announce on Thursday that they will hold an Affordable Care Act Week in Pittsburgh this month, backed by local politicians.
Pennsylvania has an estimated 1.2 million uninsured people and Allegheny County has the second-most in the state.
But just hitting the goal — scaled back from 7 million after the law's disastrous launch in October — won't be the only measure of its success. The law needs to reduce the number of uninsured, not just shift people into different coverage plans, and attract enough young, healthy people to make the economics work.
Those who enrolled need to pay their first monthly premium, the final step in securing coverage.
“The signup numbers are a good indication, but the picture is still a bit fuzzy,” said Larry Levitt, an expert on the Affordable Care Act for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in California.
He said it won't be clear until later this year how many enrollees are new to insurance, because millions of Americans last year had individual policies canceled.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services that is implementing the law, has intensified its work to “drive enrollment ... as part of a sustained, aggressive campaign,” spokesman Richard Olague said.
“Outreach is occurring in every state in the nation, with a particular emphasis on areas with the highest population of the uninsured,” he said.
The administration is targeting 19- to 34-year-olds in online and TV ads, spending $52 million on a nationwide campaign from January through March. Healthcare.gov ads featuring former NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson have run during sporting events on ESPN and during the Winter Olympics.
About a quarter of enrollees nationally are young people. A higher percentage would be better, Levitt said, but “there are enough young people to keep premiums stable.”
Homestead-based Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which employs Newman, scheduled more than a dozen events at colleges, libraries and community centers for March, including several at the Art Institute and Community College of Allegheny County.
Newman said it's difficult to find young people without insurance because many are covered by their parents' health plan. The law allows children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' plans.
Sign-ups may lag in Pennsylvania because many low-income workers fall into the so-called Medicaid gap. An estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Pennsylvanians won't get coverage this year because the state didn't expand its Medicaid program, as the law called for.
“It's heartbreaking. ... We plug in their numbers, and they don't qualify,” Newman said.
Despite the challenges, the government's outreach has picked up.
Roseanne Egan, a deputy regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in Philadelphia, visited Pittsburgh for three days to meet with advocacy groups and attend signup events, including one that targeted young service workers at Franktuary, a Lawrenceville restaurant.
Enroll America added 40 people to its 300 trained volunteers in Pittsburgh, said Bill England, the group's state director. “I think we will be right there, or pretty darn close to hitting their target for enrollment,” he said.
Allegheny Intermediate Unit doubled its navigators to six and placed two in Beaver and Butler counties.
“Our call volume has definitely increased,” Newman said.
Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or email@example.com.
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