On Wednesday, nearly four years after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, the major provisions of the health law that serve to expand coverage to millions of Americans officially took effect. Insurers are no longer allowed to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, or charge sick Americans higher prices than their healthier counterparts. And now, the Americans who have enrolled in new plans under Obamacare — either by picking a private plan on the state-level marketplaces, or by qualifying for Medicaid in the states that agreed to expand the program — may start using that coverage.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about six million people signed up for Obamacare’s coverage expansion so far. It’s not yet clear exactly how many of those people gained new insurance on January 1; some of them may not have paid their first premium yet, and ongoing technical problems with the state marketplaces may delay some people’s coverage from kicking in immediately.
Regardless of the official enrollment numbers, however, New Years Eve marked an important milestone for the health insurance industry. “It’s the last day a cancer patient can be told by their insurance company that cancer treatments aren’t covered and it’s the last day people can face limits on their coverage in the future,” White House adviser Phil Schiliro told MSNBC on Tuesday. “That’s just enormous.”
And some people who woke up to new health insurance options on Wednesday aren’t wasting any time using their new plans.
Kathy Hornbach, a 57-year-old breast cancer survivor from Arizona, scheduled a doctor’s appointment for Thursday because she was eager to use her coverage. Hornbach was uninsured until two years ago, when she purchased a plan with monthly premiums of nearly $300, and her new Obamacare plan is cheaper. “It’s a better policy — lower out-of-pocket, more choice of doctors,” she told the New York Times. “This is a very happy day.”
Rita Rizzo, a 59-year-old small business owner from Ohio, told NBC News that she’s excited to have access to coverage under Obamacare so she can finally get a check-up. “I’ve been afraid for the last three years to get preventive care, because if they found something, I couldn’t afford to treat it,” Rizzo explained. “I haven’t had any blood work in three years and my right hip is starting to give out.”
Insurers and pharmacists told the New York Times that Wednesday wasn’t an unusually busy day, likely because of the holiday, but they do expect that Obamacare’s new provisions will lead to a rush of patients later this week. One pharmacist based in Alabama noted that he’s helped some people sign up for Obamacare who will end up saving over $7,000 dollars on their prescription drugs this year.
The White House is encouraging the Americans who have gained health plans under Obamacare to share their personal stories about their “new or improved coverage” with a form on its website.
Not everyone who wants to use new coverage this month has been able to get it. Ongoing glitches with the websites intended to allow people to sign up for private Obamacare plans have thwarted some people from enrolling in time to get coverage starting on January 1. As Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff reports, some people are continuing to work through those issues in the hopes of getting signed up for coverage beginning in February.