January 2

Relief, confusion as new health benefits begin

The burden for implementing the law now shifts to insurance companies and health care providers.

By Juliet Williams
The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The new year brought relief for Americans who previously had no health insurance or were stuck in poor plans, but it also led to confusion after the troubled rollout of the federal health care reforms sent a crush of late applications to overloaded government agencies.

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Howard Kraft looks over healthcare information in his Lincolnton, N.C. home Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. All things good, bad and unpredictable converge Jan. 1 for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul as the law’s major benefits take effect, along with an unpopular insurance mandate and a real risk of more nerve-wracking disruptions to coverage. For some, the changes bring big improvements, including Kraft. A painful spinal problem left him unable to work as a hotel bellman. But he’s got coverage because federal law now forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems. “I am not one of these people getting a policy because I’m being made to,” Kraft said. “I need one to stay alive.”

AP Photo/Nell Redmond

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Dr. John Venetos poses for a photo between surgical procedures Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, in Chicago. With the full implementation of the nation's new health law that took effect New Year's Day, Venetos described the "tremendous uncertainty and anxiety" among patients calling his office who think they signed up for coverage but haven't received insurance cards yet. Others had insurance policies that were canceled and they aren't sure if their coverage was reinstated after Gov. Pat Quinn decided to allow one-year extensions of canceled plans. The Chicago physician has decided to take a risk and provide care for these patients. "We feel it's the right thing to do," Venetos said. "We may end up stuck holding the bag and not getting paid on these claims."

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

That created stacks of yet-to-be-processed paperwork and thousands — if not millions — of people unsure about whether they have insurance.

Mike Estes of Beaverton, Ore., finally received his insurance card on Dec. 27 after applying in early November. Still, the family was thrilled to have insurance through the Oregon Health Plan, Oregon's version of Medicaid, because their previous $380-a-month premium "literally crushed our family's finances," Estes said.

Obama administration officials estimate that 2.1 million consumers have enrolled so far through the federal and state-run health insurance exchanges that are a central feature of the federal law. But even before coverage began, health insurance companies complained they were receiving thousands of faulty applications from the government, and some people who thought they had enrolled for coverage have not received confirmation.

Tens of thousands of potential Medicaid recipients in the 36 states relying on the federal exchange also are in limbo after the federal website that was supposed to send their applications to the states failed to do so.

Reports of complications were scattered around the country.

In Burlington, Vt., the state's largest hospital had almost two dozen patients seek treatment with new health insurance policies, but more than half of those did not have insurance cards. Minnesota's health care exchange said 53,000 people had enrolled for coverage through its marketplace, but it was unable to confirm the insurance status of an additional 19,000 people who created accounts but did not appear to have purchased the plans.

In Connecticut, officials were pleading for patience as call centers fielded calls from people who are concerned because they had yet to receive a bill for premiums or an insurance identification card.

"This is an unprecedented time, because there are a record number of people who have applied for coverage with an effective date of Jan. 1," said Donna Tommelleo, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Insurance.

The major pieces of the Affordable Care Act that took effect with the new year mean people with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be denied coverage, yearly out-of-pocket medical expenses will be capped new insurance policies must offer a minimum level of essential benefits, ranging from emergency room treatment to maternity care.

Some parts of the law took effect previously, such as the ability of young people to remain on their parents' insurance policies until age 26.

Minnesota and Rhode Island were among the states that extended their sign-up period to the final day of 2013, leading to a crush of new paperwork that government agencies and insurance companies were still scrambling to process. Many consumers have yet to receive bills or insurance cards.

Julie Cadorette, 63, of Maynard, Mass., said she has spent dozens of hours on the phone trying to find out the status of her application through Massachusetts Health Connect, which she said she sent by certified mail three months ago. Her current plan ends Jan. 31.

"It's very hard to deal with them, they're so behind," she said Thursday. "When you call them, they ask you specific questions. You can't ask them any questions."

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