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Sebelius asks mayors, health care providers to help with Obamacare education

Updated: 2013-09-21T02:16:23Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Eleven days before push comes to shove for the federal health insurance marketplace, the nation’s top Obamacare official on Friday used a Kansas City forum to seek help from local officials.

There are bound to be some glitches Oct. 1, the first day that consumers can shop for individual pricing information on the federal health insurance marketplace, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

But in an interview, she expressed confidence that the federal government’s online system would be ready for consumers in Kansas and Missouri. What’s needed, she said, is grass-roots help to educate consumers about their options.

Before that, in a meeting with about two dozen city, business, insurance company and health care leaders at the Kauffman Foundation, Sebelius sought their help to explain the enrollment and policy options available under the Affordable Care Act.

Uninsured people in Kansas and Missouri will be directed Oct. 1 to the federally operated program because state governments in the two states chose not to create state systems.

Sebelius downplayed a Wall Street Journal report Friday that pricing glitches are being found in the federal system.

“Testing is being done,” Sebelius said. “We’re very much on track to be ready Oct. 1.”

She said any “bumps in the road” will be fixed by the opening date.

She emphasized that about 85 percent of the U.S. population already has health insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, employer-sponsored group plans or individual policies. The online marketplaces are for “the 15 percent of people who have no health insurance or are in and out of the individual market or are locked out because of pre-existing conditions.”

Sebelius also said she hopes the Kansas and Missouri legislatures will take new looks at the costs to taxpayers of not expanding their state Medicaid programs.

Without that expansion, some low-income residents will find that they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can’t get federal subsidies that would make individual policies affordable to them. They will end up using expensive emergency room services and cost taxpayers more in the long run, she said.

The secretary said the two state legislatures need to hear “loud voices from the business community” that it makes good business sense — as well as a “huge moral case” — to expand Medicaid eligibility.

She said about $8.2 billion in federal money would go to Missouri over six years and a little less than $2 billion to Kansas if the states agreed to expand Medicaid.

The two state legislatures have declined to expand the low-income assistance programs, partly because of cost concerns and partly because of political disagreement with the program. The secretary said she hopes the legislatures “make a different decision” when they reconvene in January.

“The costs (of the uninsureds’) health care is being borne now by taxpayers,” Sebelius said. “This is all about getting more paying customers.”

Sebelius said she had found around the country that mayors and local leaders were the most effective messengers for health care reform.

“They see the costs of not having care up close and personal,” she said. “They’re pragmatic leaders.”

The federal department will begin publicity for the health care marketplaces in October, using public service announcements, commercials, social media and other advertising, she said.

“It’s all about getting information to folks,” Sebelius told the invited community leaders.

She said she expected that consumers who had been unable to get insurance because of pre-existing conditions would be pleased with “good competition” for policy pricing.

Prices for the online insurance policies and the names of participating insurers will not be made public until October, but important information is available now, she said.

Meanwhile, she urged everyone with computer access to go to www.healthcare.gov.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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