Signups begin today for ACA

166,000 uninsured Ohioans expected to sign up for coverage next year.

New health insurance marketplaces established by the 2010 health care law, popularly known as Obamacare, are set to open at 8 a.m. today, ushering in a new era in health care in which people who have been denied coverage in the past or simply could not afford it will have an opportunity to obtain health insurance, often for the first time.

The online marketplaces — accessible in Ohio at — will offer one-stop shopping to small businesses and nearly 1.5 million uninsured Ohioans, who will be able to choose from 200 different health plans offered by private insurers and find out if they qualify for federal tax subsidies to offset premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Nationwide, about 7 million Americans are expected to use the marketplaces to obtain coverage for next year under the law, which requires most people not covered by Medicaid, Medicare or and employer-sponsored plan to sign up for health plans that meet government standards or pay a tax penalty.

The individual mandate is expected to push up to 166,000 uninsured Ohioans to sign up for coverage next year, according to estimates from the nonprofit Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

But because few people understand how the new marketplaces work, experts say enrollment is likely to start off as a trickle, not a flood.

And that will lessen the likelihood that the marketplaces will be overwhelmed on opening day and unable to keep up with demand, although some glitches in enrollment are inevitable, said Kathleen Gmeiner, project director for Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“I think people are very curious to see what the plan benefits will be and what the premiums will be because that information hasn’t been available until now,” Gmeiner said. “But I don’t think there will be a mad rush to enroll, because people can purchase insurance and pay their first month’s premiums up to Dec. 15.”

The initial enrollment period in the marketplaces extends through March 31, with coverage beginning Jan. 1 for those who enroll by Dec. 15.

A slow start to outreach efforts by community groups and others intended to provide information and help with sign-up for Ohio’s marketplace has also tempered expectations for tomorrow’s launch.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks received $1.96 million to lead a coalition of 14 other state and regional social services organizations to hire and train so-called “Navigators” to help lead consumers through enrollment in the marketplaces.

But the Ohio Department of Insurance — led by Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, a vocal opponent of the healthcare law — on Monday rejected the Foodbank’s application for Navigator status, said Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt.

“We’re still working through a very complicated application process with the Ohio Department of Insurance,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “They want the social security numbers of all the directors of our board.

“Never in my 30 years of dealing with both federal and state grants has that ever been required,” she added.

Until the Foodbanks’ navigator program is up and running, consumers can get help from the statewide association by calling (800) 648-1176.

In addition, a number of community groups have scheduled education and enrollment events.

The Dayton League of Women Voters will host a program on the roll out of the marketplaces with Medicaid managed care provider CareSource starting at 5:30 p.m. today at CareSource’s downtown headquarters, 230 N. Main St. The program is free and open to the public.

Dr. Glen Solomon, chairman of the department of internal medicine at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, said such programs are needed to clear the air about the marketplaces and how they will function.

“So much of the news has focused on the government shutdown and threats to defund Obamacare that people have not been focused on their need to get onto the insurance exchanges,” Solomon said. “I suspect we’re going to see a relatively slow uptake because of that.”

A shutdown would lead to the furlough of more than half of the staff of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will run the marketplace in Ohio and 35 other states that have deferred to the federal government to run their marketplaces.

But the health department has made it clear that regardless of a shutdown, it would proceed with the launch of the health marketplaces, which are not funded through the annual spending bills that would be frozen during a shutdown.

President Barack Obama said Monday the health marketplaces will be operational today even if there’s a federal government shutdown.

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