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Snags a concern as Ill. health marketplace opens

September 28, 2013

CHICAGO (AP) — Maureen Bardusk never thought she’d be directly affected by President Barack Obama’s health care law until her husband was laid off in June, forcing her to pay more for a temporary extension of her health insurance.

But on Tuesday, the 62-year-old artist from Galena, who completed breast cancer treatment two years ago, will be shopping for new and hopefully more affordable coverage, along with millions of other Americans who hope the Affordable Care Act will work for them. She’s planning to explore her options online, hoping a new government marketplace will offer a plan that includes her doctor.

“I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to this health care thing,” Bardusk said. “I didn’t think I would be a candidate for that, but it turns out I am.”

Whether the initial experience for Bardusk and others will go smoothly is the next big challenge for the nation’s massive new health care initiative, and Illinois officials caution there will be snags when the new insurance website opens for business Tuesday, the program’s key launch date.

Officials insist that none of the expected problems with the comparison-shopping site will prevent anyone from getting insurance by the start of the new year, when it will be required for most Americans. But some acknowledge there’s a risk: People may become discouraged by potential delays, hiccups and bugs and perhaps give up on the historic program, jeopardizing one of Obama’s major domestic achievements.

“You may not see a lot of advertising at first because we want to make sure kinks and bugs are worked out,” said Kelly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Illinois’ new marketplace, known as Get Covered Illinois. “We don’t want to overstimulate demand to a system that can’t handle it in the early days.”

Sullivan stressed that people have until mid-December to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1, and until the end of March to avoid fines.

The president’s home state has the fifth largest number of uninsured residents, with 1.8 million people lacking coverage. Officials are keeping initial expectations low, hoping at least 300,000 people sign up before the end of March for new insurance options being made available.

The hurdles include a lag in completing the certification on hundreds of workers who’ve been trained to help consumers sign up for coverage. Only a fraction of an expected 1,200 guides will be certified by Tuesday, so most won’t be able to assist people with the process.

Software problems have already been discovered and others are sure to crop up. The federal government is running the technology behind the marketplace because state lawmakers didn’t approve a state-run effort in time for this year, and that leaves the state subject to federal delays.

For instance, the federal government won’t launch its Spanish-language online enrollment site until mid-October. A separate online marketplace for small business owners won’t be fully functional until Nov. 1.

Federal officials also say they won’t be able to transfer applications from the marketplace to Illinois’ Medicaid program until Nov. 1. Conversely, glitches on the Illinois side mean the state can’t transfer applications that mistakenly are filed with the Medicaid system to the marketplace until mid-November. An expansion of the Medicaid program, which covers health costs for the poor, is a major part of the health care law.

Chicago insurance agent Sheldon Levenbrook tells clients that he’ll help them with the marketplace, but not on the first day or even the first month. He completed training in August and has waited five weeks for confirmation of a federal ID number he needs before he can help customers. He said he has called a government help line three times a week.

“I’m sick of it already,” Levenbrook said. “The frustration? Every time I call it’s at least an hour before someone picks up... My gut feeling is there will be a lot of glitches in October.”

Several groups told The Associated Press they’re dealing with delays in getting certification for workers. At a meeting Wednesday, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck mentioned the lag, expressing concern that consumers may get discouraged because they’ll find no one authorized to help them.

The delays and glitches provide fodder for anti-big government groups who oppose the initiative, such as Americans for Prosperity-Illinois. That group is trying to mobilize by reaching out to its supporters through social media and planning protests in October.

Laura Leon, a trained outreach worker in Chicago, says she plans to spend the first days of the six-month enrollment period merely setting up appointments with people she’ll help enroll later.

“I won’t have my certification” by Tuesday, said Leon, project director for a program offering help through health care “navigators” at the Sinai Community Institute in Chicago. Sinai Health System has 17 trained guides, and Leon hopes they’ll be certified by Oct. 8.

“There’s a lot of information we can still talk to (consumers) about,” Leon said. “And they can go onto the marketplace and view it themselves.”

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AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson

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