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Health care goes ‘viral,’ local health workers not ready to sign up residents for Obamacare plans

Nathan Baker • Oct 2, 2013 at 9:07 PM

Like the government’s overtaxed health care marketplace website, some local health workers aren’t quite ready to begin serving residents hoping to sign up for the insurance plans offered by the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Silas Tolan, outreach and enrollment coordinator for East Tennessee State University’s College of Nursing, said 18 application counselors from the college’s managed clinics are still undergoing training to be certified to walk individuals through the application process.

“We’re still waiting on our official registration, and then we have to go through the process with the state to be registered,” Tolan said Wednesday. “There are a lot of people trying to register right now, and it’s slowed everything down.”

The counselors are not able to help individuals enroll yet, but Tolan said the process should be completed this week, noting that the clinics are already scheduling appointments with patients next week to help them enroll.

The federal health care marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called “Obamacare,” went live Tuesday, and was immediately overwhelmed by millions of visitors from the 35 states — including Tennessee and Virginia — that chose not to set up state-run marketplaces.

Federal figures claim that the exchange’s website, healthcare.gov, garnered more than 4.7 million visits in the first 24 hours of open enrollment.

Because of the excess traffic, many of those visitors were unable to even complete the first few steps of the application process, the precursor to discovering what insurance plans and subsidies are available.

Tolan said most of his staff members weren’t able to successfully sign up either when experimenting with the system Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I think right now, it’s kind of hit or miss,” he said. “I tried several times, but wasn’t able to get all the way through. One of the staff members was able to get through that process, but then got a message saying the system was down.”

Once the system is fully operational and the staff is certified, those who currently don’t have health insurance or are paying high premiums for their current plans — mostly those with expensive pre-existing conditions — can browse their options on the marketplace.

But in Northeast Tennessee, those options may be somewhat limited at the marketplace’s inception.

By law, insurance providers in the marketplace must offer the same basic health benefits, but the plans from each provider are divided into four levels of premium costs.

Last week, before the exchange opened, Mountain States Health Alliance Vice President of Community and Government Relations Elliott Moore, expressed concerns that only one provider, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, was a confirmed participant in the exchange for the region.

“That’s the only one that we have confirmed, there’s rumors of another, and I hope there is,” Moore said. “Certainly this enrollment period we would like to see more options for people, but some of the insurers have opted to sit it out just to see how it goes. Maybe the next enrollment we’ll see more participating.”

Tolan said he knew of only one provider participating in the exchange for Northeast Tennessee, but said he was unsure how the lack of options would affect potential insurance shoppers.

Because of the website glitches, a reporter was unable to access the exchange Wednesday to confirm the number of participating insurance companies.

Tolan said the process will be just as new for his staff as it will be for those seeking insurance, and asked those coming to the college’s clinics for help to be patient.

“It’s brand new for us,” he said. “We won’t have any more experience than anyone else, but we’re looking forward to getting started and hope people will be patient and give us feedback on ways we can improve.”

Locally, a group called Appalachian Mountain Project Access and a number of local insurance brokers have also enlisted to aid insurance seekers.

For a list of those helpers, visit the federal health care website.

While the exchange aims to cover approximately 400,000 uninsured Tennessee residents below 400 percent of the poverty level, Moore made sure to point out that just as many poorer residents, those below 133 percent of the poverty line, are still uninsured.

“The working poor, without Medicaid expansion, are still not going to be able to get insurance on this system,” she said. “Without the states accepting the funding for that expansion, a lot of people are still going to be left out.”

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