Confusion abounds as Obamacare open enrollment period approaches

PHOTO: Nurses, doctors, health advocates and patients rally together in front of the Save My Care Bus near the Jackson Memorial hospital on March 2, 2017, in Miami.PlayJoe Raedle/Getty Images
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In just a matter of days, on Nov. 1, millions of people will enroll in Obamacare’s marketplace for health insurance, but after months of back-and-forth over the law, consumers are still confused about when, where, how -- and if -- they can get coverage.

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While most of the country gets health coverage through their employer or through government programs, over 10 million people need to purchase plans through the marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, law that Republicans have vowed to repeal.

PHOTO: Hisham Uadadeh enrolls in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act with the help of A. Michael Khoury at Leading Insurance Agency on Feb. 13, 2014, in Miami, Florida.Joe Raedle/Getty Images FILE
Hisham Uadadeh enrolls in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act with the help of A. Michael Khoury at Leading Insurance Agency on Feb. 13, 2014, in Miami, Florida.

But the Trump administration’s moves to shorten the length of this year’s open enrollment, cut advertising dollars and slash funding for programs that assist in enrollment have health care advocates concerned that far fewer people will sign up for health insurance this year.

With the government's scaled-back operations, health care advocacy groups have stepped in to help inform people of their options.

“The confusion has been running the gamut running from ‘do I need to have insurance?’ to ‘is the ACA gone?’” said Jim Willshier, Director of Policy at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers.

With Open Enrollment days away, so-called navigator programs like the ones run by Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, are focusing on grassroots efforts to inform and educate the public. But that task was made more challenging by recent budget cuts. The Trump administration cut $116 million in funds for advertising, outreach and navigator programs.

PHOTO: Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Maggie Hassan look on as Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks during a news conference in opposition to the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, Sept. 26, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Maggie Hassan look on as Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks during a news conference in opposition to the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, Sept. 26, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Willshier said thirty-five percent of his organization's budget was cut from 2016 to 2017.

An enrollment period that's been cut in half to 45 days has only added to the pressures. In some states, the enrollment period has been extended, but in most places, navigator programs will have to do more with less money and less time.

“We’re just trying to make ourselves as available as possible, we’re going to be working on weekends, and we’re trying to get the word,” said Leslie Bachurski, Director of Consumer Navigation at Consumer Health Coalition, which serves 42 counties in Pennsylvania.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that only one-fifth of the population is aware that the recent debates they’ve seen playing out in the headlines about the Obamacare marketplaces only effect people who buy health insurance on their own.

“It’s likely the result of a whole year of debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act, where they’re hearing about it nightly on the evening news and not remembering what the punch line is,” said Karen Pollitz, a Senior Fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Health insurance was always complicated, it was never intuitive to people. And on top of that you have people saying Obamacare is dead.”

To fill the advertising void, even some private companies are doing outreach of their own. Oscar Health, a new health insurance company started by Jared Kushner’s younger brother Joshua, rolled out an advertising campaign for the open enrollment period. The company put up ads in places ranging from Grand Central Station in New York to Nashville.

The company is also providing educational tools for consumers.

"Because health care is so confusing, and there's a lot of industry terminology, we've invested a lot in educational content to help people understand their plan and what options are available," said Sara Rowghani, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Oscar.

Three former Obama administration officials -- former Medicare and Medicaid administrator Andy Slavitt, Josh Peck, and Lori Lodes -- joined together to create Get America Covered, a group that's working on advertising and outreach efforts.

"What we are doing is making sure that people get that basic information because people are really confused," said Lodes. "The good thing is what counters the misinformation and confusion are the basic facts."

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