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Mainers Begin Signing up for Health Care Under ACA
10/01/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

It's survived political battles, a Supreme Court ruling, and, as of today, a government shutdown. Today marks a major milestone for the Affordable Care Act - the online insurance marketplace is officially open. And now, more than 100 people trained to help the uninsured and under-insured understand their options can finally help them enroll. As Patty Wight reports, opening day of the online insurance marketplace has gotten off to an enthusiastic, if a bit bumpy, start.

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Mainers Begin Signing up for Health Care Under ACA Listen

Libby Cummings

Outreach enrollment specialist Libby Cummings fields calls from consumers interested in signing up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Not everyone has been waiting with bated breath for this day. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that just 1 in 8 uninsured knew that the Marketplace opens for business on Oct. 1st, and half of the general public are confused by Affordable Care Act.

But Libby Cummings, an outreach enrollment specialist at the Portland Community Health Center, can't get enough of the new law. "I read a textbook on health policy for fun before I started working here, so...," she says, with a laugh.

Cummings is 23 years old, and has been counting down toward this day since she started her job in July. As an outreach enrollment specialist, she - similar to a so-called 'navigator' - can help people sign up for insurance in the new Marketplace.

Leading up to Oct. 1st, Cummings laid the groundwork to drive the appropriate consumers to the marketplace. She formed partnerships with community organizations, gave presentations and fielded phone calls. When shes walks to her desk at around 10:00 a.m. on opening day, her phone is already blinking with messages.

"I have four voicemails from community members this morning," she says, "and the first three were very general: 'What's going on? I think there's a health insurance thing I need to do. Can you call me back?' "

Cummings says she relishes the chance to inform people about the Marketplace, and immediately starts returning calls. She spends a lot of her time explaining that the Marketplace is for the uninsured and under-insured. If you already have insurance through your employer, MaineCare, or Medicare, she explains, then you don't need to do anything.

"Good - I just got your voicemail and your question," she says on one return call. The person on the phone wants to know about deductibles. Cummings explains that the maximum deductible anyone will pay in the Marketplace is a little more than $6,000. Soon after, Cummings hangs up and gives a satisfied sigh.

"That's why I do this!" she says. "She was almost crying on the phone - just so happy because they have this really high deductible plan, and she and her husband have always been worried about something happening medically in their family and going, you know, bankrupt."

Wendy WolfJust as some consumers are welcoming this new option to buy insurance, so too, are some doctors - like Wendy Wolf, (left) CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, who spoke at a kick-off event in Portland.

"And let me just do a gesture." (Wolf drop-kicks an imaginary ball) "Boom!" Wolf says she's been waiting 35 years for affordable health care coverage. "Cause ya know what? As a physican, one of the most horrible things in the world is to try to take care of someone who is uninsured, and you know the agony that that family goes through with the decisions of trying to treat their health problem and not make their family go bankrupt. Let's hope those days are gone."

There may have been some frustration today as people across the U.S. tried to sign up for insurance on the Marketplace. The Web site gave messages to wait, or that the system was down. Joe Ditre, of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, says it's due to heavy traffic and signifies the success of the program. But he reminds that online isn't the only way to enroll.

"There's a lot of ways of enrolling," he says. "It can be done on paper, it can be done on by phone, and it can be done online. So I think that people will have a lot of options."

Enrollment is open through March of next year, though for coverage to begin Jan. 1st, the deadline to sign up is Dec. 15th. Dr. Wendy Wolf says signing up the 140,000 or so Mainers who currently don't have insurance will be more like a marathon than a sprint. But she hopes at least 20,000 to 30,000 will take part in the first year.

Photos:  Patty Wight

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