published Friday, August 30th, 2013

Churches asked to help as insurance exchanges come online in October

Uninsured population

* Tennessee, 918,356, or 17 percent

* Georgia, 1.85 million, or 21.7 percent

* Alabama, 669,410, or 16.6 percent

Source: U.S. Bureau of Census estimates for uninsured population for 2011

ObamaCare changes ahead

* Oct. 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014: Uninsured individuals may sign up for the new health care exchange plans and, depending upon income, qualify for government assistance to buy the private insurance plans.

* Jan. 1, 2014: Individual mandate to buy health insurance, if not covered by an employer or government plan already, begins. New benefits begin for health care exchange plans, provided persons pay initial premium on Dec. 15, 2013.

* Jan. 1, 2015: Employers with 50 or more full-time employees must provide heath insurance coverage for their workers.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

When Forestine Haynes retired at age 59 after more than four decades of work, she felt confident she had enough savings to make it until her Social Security benefits began at age 62.

But what the retired planner and nonprofit-organization head didn't count on was that Medicare health benefits would not be available until she turned 65, and buying individual health insurance at her age was unaffordable.

"I'm one of the faces of the thousands of uninsured in Chattanooga who are just one major medical emergency away from financial devastation," Haynes told members of the Clergy Koinonia on Thursday during a program on the new Affordable Care Act.

Haynes and other supporters of the federal health care reform law said they should benefit from health insurance exchanges that will begin offering policies online Oct. 1. The tax-subsidized health insurance marketplaces are part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They include federal incentives for uninsured persons earning up to four times the federal poverty level, or up to $88,200 a year for a family of four.

Katherlyn Geter, regional coordinator in Chattanooga for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, said churches can play a key role in the new program.

"We need our churches to get the word out and to help encourage people to sign up for these plans and to live healthier lives," Geter said.

Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, appealed to clergy members to help uninsured parishioners sign up for coverage.

"There is so much confusion and misunderstanding that we have to answer the call to make sure we educate people to help them understand this bill and what it offers," she said. "Anytime you have an undertaking of this magnitude, you are going to have problems, just like when you move into a new house and have to deal with unexpected problems."

Favors likened the sweeping changes under the Affordable Care Act to what she experienced when she began her nursing career in 1966, when Medicare and Medicaid were just beginning.

"They called us communists then and now they call us socialists," Favors said. "Anytime you try to help people, you get called all kinds of things. But that's okay as long as we can make a difference in people's lives."

The Obama administration said this week it won't sign final agreements with insurers until mid-September, just a couple of weeks before the plans are to be sold in the market. The administration already has pushed a mandate for businesses to provide employee health insurance back a year, to 2015.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Health Committee and an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said the administration's delays "should make every American anxious about the quality of the health care they'll be able to purchase."

"I've been warning that a train wreck is coming with this law, but the truth is that no train wreck has ever had this many warning signs," Alexander said.

In Tennessee, four health insurance companies will offer plans on the exchanges -- BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Cigna Healthcare, Coventry Health & Life and Community Health Alliance. Chattanooga-based BlueCross is the only insurer to offer plans in all 95 Tennessee counties. It will offer two dozen plans in Hamilton County to the help the nearly 50,000 persons who still lack insurance.

"For BlueCross, this is a major investment," said Carla Raynor, the company's vice president of strategic marketing. "We're gearing up now with our call centers to respond to questions and to begin signing as many people as we can."

Experts estimate more than 300,00 uninsured people in Tennessee are likely to sign up for the exchanges. Tennessee opted not to have its own state exchange, choosing instead to let the federal government operate one. Now Tennessee is now deploying 20 navigators across the state -- along with many volunteer certified application counselors -- to help the uninsured evaluate plans and sign up.

BlueCross has designated Erlanger Health System as the preferred provider for its lowest-cost health plan being introduced this fall. Joe Winick, senior vice president at Erlanger and head of the hospital's Alton Park and Dodson Avenue Health Centers, said 20 physicians have been added in the past month and a new pharmacy is being built at the Dodson Avenue clinic in help respond to the health care changes.

Providing incentives for preventive health care instead of more expensive emergency room treatment for so many people should be better and cheaper, Winick said.

"There was a lot of incredible wisdom in the provisions of this bill and our goal is really to build a healthier community that is good for everyone," he said.

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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