State insurance marketplace swamped with consumers
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Oct 01, 2013 | 6071 views |  0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, application counselors Debra Foster and Haley Thomas help consumers Marvin and Mary Jones with insurance enrollment at the RMC Annex building. (Photo by Trent Penny)
In this file photo, application counselors Debra Foster and Haley Thomas help consumers Marvin and Mary Jones with insurance enrollment at the RMC Annex building. (Photo by Trent Penny)
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Mary Jones soon will have to pay for her health care.

She couldn't be more thrilled.

The Hobson City resident sat with her husband, Marvin Jones, Tuesday afternoon and listened attentively to her health insurance options in a small room at the back of a building behind Regional Medical Center in Anniston. For years, Jones said, she has been unable to afford the health insurance that would have provided her with the coverage she needed.

But no longer.

"It's a great feeling being able to have affordable health care and I thank God, the president and the United States of America for being able to have it," Jones said.

Jones was one of more than 50 Anniston residents who enrolled or made appointments to enroll in the state's federally managed health insurance marketplace Tuesday. The local interest in the program was just a part of about 2.8 million people trying to enroll, which swamped phone lines and significantly slowed down the federal website needed to sign up in the marketplace, officials said.

Enrollment began Tuesday for individual consumers in the insurance marketplaces, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Marilyn Tavenner, head of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in a prepared statement Tuesday that 2.8 million people had on Tuesday visited the marketplace website, Healthcare.gov. The marketplaces, designed mainly for the uninsured, offer various health insurance plans from private insurers, the costs of which will be supplemented by annual federal tax credits to make premiums more affordable. None of the plans can deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions and all must offer at least the same 10 services, including newborn care and prescription drug coverage.

Debra Foster, certified application counselor from Gadsden-based Quality of Life Health Services, was on hand in the Regional Medical Center West Annex building in Anniston on Tuesday to help residents with the marketplace. Quality of Life, which owns several community health centers including Anniston Quality Health Care, received a federal grant to train application counselors and spread them around the state.

"We went through three and a half weeks of training ... our training is pretty extensive and what we're doing is assisting consumers through the process in applying for health coverage," Foster said.

Foster, who will be available at the annex from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to help residents, said many area residents were interested in the marketplace Tuesday. She said more than 50 people showed up at Quality of Life's Gadsden site Tuesday morning to enroll. Also by Tuesday afternoon, the Anniston location was blasted with phone calls, Foster said.

"We were kind of flooded with phone calls with people wanting appointments to come in," Foster said.

Foster said she is already booked for the next two weeks with appointments — five a day — from residents needing help to enroll. Foster said she could help enroll more, were it not for the time needed to explain each insurance plan.

"It's a good thing and we hope to keep busy," Foster said. "There are a lot of uninsured people in our community and we hope to get them enrolled."

Foster noted that she and her fellow counselors do not tell consumers what plans to purchase in the marketplace.

"We cannot advise them or help them select their plans," Foster said. "We just show them their options and help explain the plans."

Marvin Jones, who has Medicare coverage, said he was impressed with the plans and rates offered through the marketplace. He said the premiums for the private insurance his wife once had became too expensive to afford and the services offered did not provide coverage for what she needed anyway.

"The premiums for this are lower, hundreds of dollars a month lower," he said of the marketplace premiums. "And it offers all the coverage my wife needs."

Meanwhile, the federal website set up to register in the marketplaces, Healthcare.gov, was moving slowly Tuesday, in some cases not allowing people to enroll, due to heavy use, said Sonja Smith, project coordinator for Enroll Alabama, a nonprofit established to help educate state residents about the marketplace.

"It's been difficult to get people online and enrolled ... they are saturated because there is a lot of use and its the first day," Smith said of the website.

Smith said that while the slowdown is a nuisance, it is temporary and an example of the great interest in the marketplaces. Like Foster's office, Smith said her offices were inundated with calls Tuesday. Enroll Alabama has federally-funded and trained marketplace navigators in several key points of the state, including Anniston, to help residents enroll.

"We have seen a lot of calls from Anniston, Talladega and Piedmont ... lots of phone calls from people who have pre-existing conditions and people referred to us from other health agencies," Smith said.

Jeff Nelson, Enroll Alabama's Anniston-based navigator, said he was quite busy Tuesday. Unlike Foster, Nelson is also qualified to help small businesses enroll in the business side of the marketplaces, called the Small Business Health Options Program.

"Pretty much all day has been me talking on the phone," Nelson said. "There's been people wanting the insurance and wanting to understand how they can get it."

Nelson said he's already set up 10 appointments with residents and one with a local agency to teach them about the marketplace. He plans to make more appointments in the near future.

"I'm pleasantly surprised by all the positive response," Nelson said.

To learn more about the marketplace or make an appointment for help with with enrollment, call Debra Foster at 256-393-1028 or call Jeff Nelson at 205-305-6506.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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