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260,015 New Jerseyans Signed Up For Healthcare Under Affordable Care Act

With First Open Enrollment Period Over, Residents Are Vulnerable to Fine For Not Having Insurance
Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—161,775 state residents signed up for health insurance during the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) open enrollment period, according to an announcement last week.  An additional 98,240 people signed up for Medicare.

"Today's numbers underscore New Jerseyans' desire to access quality, affordable health care coverage for their families," US Congressman Bill Pascrell said in a press release.  "There was a clear need for the ACA and these numbers show that the law is working."

It is unclear how many of these people are newly insured and not just replacing a formerly existing healthcare plan.

According to the release, the federal government allocated a $7.67 million grant to facilitate enrollment during the open period. However, Governor Chris Christie spent only $3,000 of the money, allowing the rest to be reabsorbed by the U.S. Treasury due to his opposition to the ACA.

The number of enrollees has exceeded initial expectations, both nationally and in New Jersey.  But support for the ACA is still mixed, according to a recent poll conducted locally.

The Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers conducted a telephone poll of 816 participants during the week of March 31, showing more support than opposition in the Garden State.

When asked how they felt about the ACA, also known as Obamacare, 26% said they strongly supported it, 28% said they somewhat supported it, 12% said they somewhat opposed it, 28% said they strongly opposed it, and 5% said they did not know.

Party identification, such as Republican or Democrat, and political ideology, such as identifying as Liberal or Conservative, demonstrated unsurprising correlations.

A higher percentage of Democrats and Liberals supported the Affordable Care Act, while a higher percentage of Republicans and Conversatives, demonstrated opposition.  Interestingly, gender did not have any impact on support or disapproval of the ACA.

"This seems a bit surprising", said Professor David Redlawk who led the study, "Women are usually more Democratic and Liberal overall than men."

The poll revealed that at least one quarter of women polled did not feel the ACA went far enough, compared to 66% who felt it went too far, combining to cancel out the traditional gender gap.

"More women see it as not doing enough, so their opposition is about wanting a more comprehensive system."

During open enrollment, concerns that misinformation and confusion were plaguing the ACA were plentiful.

But after several deadline extensions and major problems with the Healthcare.gov website, the Affordable Care Act has appeared to weather the storm.

During open enrollment confusion was evident in New Brunswick. An informal survey of city residents performed by New Brunswick Today showed that many New Brunswickers didn't know they would be suscpetible to a fine if they failed to obtain health insurance before the end of March.

Anyone without coverage after the open enrollment period is subject to a fine under the provision of the ACA known as the individual mandate.

The fine is equal to 1% of a person's annual income or $95 per person uninsured per year up to a maximum of $285, whichever is greater.  Those who are only uninsured for part of the year will be subject to 1/12 of that amount.

Those rates will rise to either 2.5% of annual income or $695 per person by 2016.

Onawar Taveras, manager of the Azcona Deli and Supermarket on Louis Street, said she had avoided signing up through the exchange because she had heard the website had problems.

“I didn’t even try because I heard a lot of people had too much of a problem with it,” said Taveras.

“I heard about [the deadline.] I guess I’m going to just pay the fine because I don’t have insurance.”

Taveras was previously insured through Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield, but has been uninsured for a few years.

Stephen Murphy, a Local 3 Union laborer from Jersey City who is currently working in New Brunswick, said he typically gets insured through the union, but was not certain if he worked the minimum amount of time necessary for coverage last year.

“I have to work 1000 hours a year to have insurance, and usually I’m covered for the next year. If I have a bad year, it really effects the following year,” he said.

Murphy said he didn’t know very much about the ACA, but that he didn’t think fining people for being uninsured was right.

“I’m not even sure how the new act works, but I guess hopefully it’s not too expensive for me because I have a mortgage to pay. Anything else right now is hard,” he said.

He said his union urged him to sign up for COBRA, but that he didn’t think he could afford the premiums alongside his current expenses.

New Brunswick resident Dulcie Reyes said she tried to sign up through the public health insurance exchange last month and received only a notice to await confirmation via email.

“I did [try and sign up on the exchange,] the only thing that happened was they said they would contact me on my email,” she said. “I had a text that said to check my email, but they still haven’t sent me nothing.”

Reyes, a crossing guard and home health aid, said the process was unclear to her and difficult to navigate, and she was unaware that she would be fined if she remained uninsured after the deadline.

“I wasn’t even aware of [the deadline,] either,” she said. “They should pay people to help people get insured - not computers; a person telling me everything I need to know and showing me how to do it."

In fact, Enroll America, a non-profit outreach organization, was started for exactly that purpose.  Alescia Teel, Enroll America's New Jersey Communications Lead, said the group's goal is to maximize the number of people who gain coverage before the deadline.

"We don't actually do enrollment," she said. "We're more focused on the education piece and we have a lot of events [featuring professionals and trained personnell.]"

Teel said 900,000 uninsured individuals in New Jersey were still eligible for health coverage as of October 1.

"There's been a little confusion," she said. "It helps to have someone who has done it before, and the help is free."

Teel said that since open enrollment began in October 2013 it has been a "marathon, not a sprint," but within the last few weeks people were signing up in droves.

Isaac Benjamin, Enroll America's Middlesex County Organizer, echoed the sentiment when he was interviewed in March, saying "We've definitely seen a major pickup since January, when people started getting covered... In New Brunswick we are seeing a lot more people who are saying they have gotten enrolled."

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital partnered with Enroll America, offering them office space in the downtown Fitness & Wellness Center. Benjamin said the building's lobby was one of the organizations hotspots for outreach activity.

Benjamin touted what he called "the golden ticket of information," which detailed 10 locations in New Brunswick where people can go to get insured.

"So many people have been hearing so many things, but it's not difficult," he said. "There are so many resources available to help people get covered...and walk them through the applications."

Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, defended the ACA in front of the House Ways and Means committee on March 12, saying 4.2 million people had signed up through the exchanges since it went online, Reuters reports.

"Success looks like millions of people with affordable health coverage, which we will have by the end of March in the private marketplace, in Medicaid, young adults on their family plans," she said, according to Reuters.

Sebelius resigned from her cabinet position shorthly thereafter.

Despite the broad miscommunication between the stewards of the law and the public affected by it, students at Rutgers University expressed relief that they would be able to remain under the parents’ insurance until age 26.

Patrick Kessel, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said remaining covered was a big relief for him as he finishes his college career.

“I have Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, it’s very comprehensive coverage and the extension is a huge deal,” he said. “It takes the weight off my shoulders of having to buy insurance or finding a job that supplies insurance,”

Kessel said his insurance meets the new standards set by the ACA and will remain in place.

The government pivoted from crisis management after the botched website rollout and cancelled insurance plans, putting those negative points behind them to appeal to potential youth enrollees to bolster the dismal number of 18-34 year old sign-ups.

The Washington Post reported that young adults accounted for roughly one fourth of health plan sign-ups in the first three months of open-enrollment. Youth enrollees are seen as vital because they inject healthier people into the system and prevent premiums from increasing.

However, the Post did report an upswing in numbers. 8.7 million people visited Healthcare.gov in the last week - 2 million of which signed on during the weekend.

Those who remain uninsured will have to wait until the next open enrollment period, which is set to begin on Novemeber 15, 2014.  Until they gain coverage they will be legally vulnerable to the individual mandate fine.