Volunteers spread word about ‘Obamacare’ changes

MIAMI (AP) — With just 50 days until Floridians are able to go online and shop for private health insurance under a new federal law, hundreds of volunteers are fanning out across the state to inform people about the law and the coverage opportunities available under it.

Volunteers, who are mobilizing grassroots efforts similar to election campaigns, say they’re finding that people are hungry to hear more.

“There was some expectation that because the issue has a charged political history… that there would be this very large portion of people that wouldn’t want to engage in it and would just slam the door in your face or if you’re at a table, just walk away,” said John Gilbert, national field director of Enroll America, a nonprofit group sponsoring a national marketing campaign of the health care law. “Very, very few people are actually not engaging with us.”

A Miami organizer received more than 20 phone calls within an hour of speaking on a local radio show, the organization said during a conference call with reporters Monday.

Enroll America is focusing tens of millions of dollars and 3,000 volunteers in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and seven other states with a strong GOP presence where officials have been resistant to the Affordable Care Act. The state of Florida isn’t spending any additional money on outreach efforts and will rely on roughly $14 million from federal officials to get the message out to 3.5 million uninsured Floridians. That compares to the nearly $28 million spent reaching out to Washington state’s much smaller 960,000.

Seventy-eight percent of uninsured adults don’t know about opportunities that will be available to them in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, according to Enroll America. That’s part of the reason organizers say they plan to have several conversations with people during the process, relying on house parties, phone banks, staffing tables at community events and a massive social media campaign.

“This is not a conversation about politics. This is a conversation about what does this mean to you, your family and your pocketbook,” said Anita Fete, director of state assistance.

But volunteers don’t have any details yet about the bottom line because the federal government hasn’t released how much premiums, co-pays and deductibles will cost in the exchange. The rates will likely come out next month. A survey of 7,300 people in five states including Florida by the Cigna insurance company found that price was the most important factor when choosing plans under the exchange, followed by having a relationship with a doctor.

But the organization said its job is to educate residents about the options and steer price questions toward more general rhetoric, such as “you may qualify for a subsidy,” Gilbert said.

State insurance officials recently said rates will rise an average of 5 to 20 percent for small businesses and 30 to 40 percent in the individual market under the exchange, but countered that those increases are partly due to consumers receiving more benefits. The higher costs will also be offset by federal subsidies in many cases.

Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said most of the state’s roughly 3.5 million uninsured residents will not see extreme price hikes. The new insurance plans will be more comprehensive, making direct comparisons to existing plans impossible.

Critics said the projections were misleading because the state didn’t release figures for the actual plans.

Last week, a progressive advocacy group announced its plans to go on the offensive on “Obamacare” in Florida.

“When we are met with what we believe is mythical info… we are going to push back aggressively,” said Brad Woodhouse of Americans United for Change.

Meanwhile, conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation will hold a town hall event in Tampa later this month to highlight what they call failures of the law and discuss ways to strip funding for it.

CEO Mike Needham warned that health care premiums will increase and businesses will cut jobs because they can’t afford to offer health coverage to employees.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, planned to discuss the law with business leaders in Gainesville on Monday night.

“I think one of the largest drivers of uncertainty in our economy today is the cloud of ‘Obamacare’ hanging over it,” he said during an event in Jacksonville earlier Monday.

The new marketplaces, which are open for enrollment Oct. 1, will have the feel of an online travel site where individuals, families and small businesses can compare different private insurance plans. Consumers will be able to choose from plans that offer a range of premiums, deductibles and co-pays depending on variables such as how many doctors that a person wants included in his or her network. Residents making less than $48,000 a year will receive a federal voucher to help offset premium costs.

Anyone making below the poverty line, $11,490 for an individual or $23,550 for a family of four, won’t be eligible for subsidies through the online marketplace.

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