Health

Obamacare’s Second Open Enrollment Period Is Coming Up, But Millions Of People Have No Idea

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Stravato

The second Obamacare open-enrollment period is less than three weeks away, but nine out of 10 uninsured Americans are still in the dark about the means through which they can receive coverage, according to a poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Researchers polled more than 1,500 people via phone earlier this month and found that two-thirds knew “only a little” or “nothing at all” about the Obamacare insurance exchanges where they can buy health plans. More than half of the respondents also said they didn’t know that subsidies were available to those with moderate or low incomes.

“The No. 1 barrier to enrollment continues to be lack of knowledge about financial help being available,” Neil Deegan, the state-level director for Enroll America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps Americans sign up for health care, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Our research shows that while the remaining uninsured may be harder to reach, they aren’t harder to convince once they know the facts. Many just don’t know what’s available or understand how affordable plans can be.”

The recent study highlights the challenges that navigators face in raising awareness among the uninsured — especially Latinos, Asians, and those living in rural areas — and helping them navigate a complicated application process, especially since the health care law hasn’t been a prominent topic of discussion during this election season.

Failing to sign up could lead to significant risks for those who go without coverage. A 2012 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report found that the uninsured often miss opportunities to diagnose serious health conditions early. According to the report, those without insurance also stand the most likely to have their health decline upon discovery of a chronic disease, due to a lack of follow-up care. The uninsured also report postponing care and medication at rates higher than that of their counterparts who have Medicaid and other forms of insurance.

This year, federal health care officials have shifted the focus to the subsidies available to consumers as part of an effort to alleviate concerns about insurance costs among middle and lower income Americans. Goals this year include renewing plans for those who signed up last year and enrolling 10 million uninsured people, 4 million whom will join the Medicaid rolls, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded $7 million less in grants to 90 nonprofit groups that hire navigators nationwide. While concerns about a malfunctioning Obamacare enrollment website have waned, some people are concerned that the shorter enrollment period — three months compared to six months last year — will be a hurdle for navigators trying to carry out their mission.

Obamacare navigators also face opposition from Republicans in nearly two dozen states who want to regulate their activities. Pennsylvania Senate Republicans, for example, recently proposed a measure that would require navigators to register with the state insurance department and pass a criminal background check. The federal courts have questioned the constitutionality of similar laws that passed in some states, while proponents claim the measures protect consumers from manipulation.

Those challenges, however, pale in comparison to what has happened — or hasn’t happened — in many of the southern states that are still resisting Obamacare. Nearly 5 million uninsured people, many of whom are African American, remain uninsured because elected officials in GOP-controlled states refuse to expand Medicaid. Americans in this group face a peculiar predicament: their incomes are too high to qualify for total coverage but not high enough to where they qualify for subsidies they could use to purchase private insurance through federal exchanges.

But these snags haven’t deterred HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell from rallying doctors to encourage their patients to renew their enrollment. For those without insurance, she continues to stress that once covered, they can afford annual check-ups and make less trips to the emergency room.

“We hope you’ll encourage [your patients] to stay covered, and we hope you’ll encourage any uninsured patients to go ahead and take that important step and get covered,” Burwell recently said in prepared remarks to the American Academy of Family Physicians. “As family physicians, you know how hard it is for your patients when they don’t have insurance, or have coverage that’s unaffordable or runs out just when they need it the most.”