Educating Public is Next Challenge for Mass. Health Care Experiment

By | April 17, 2007

For the past year, those working on the Massachusetts landmark health care law have labored largely out of the limelight, drafting new regulations and enrolling the state’s poorest citizens in new subsidized health insurance programs.

Come May 1, the law goes public in a big way.

That’s the day when all those uninsured in Massachusetts who don’t qualify for subsidized plans can start signing up for the lower-cost private plans created as part of the law.

Two months later, on July 1, nearly everyone in the state must be enrolled in some kind of health care plan or face tax penalties next year.

To make that transition as smooth as possible the board overseeing the law is planning an educational blitz aimed at individuals, employers and even health care providers. The campaign includes television and radio advertisements, direct mailings, community meetings and a spruced up web site.

“It’s going to be week after week, month after month of getting the word out,” said Jon Kingsdale, executive director of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector, which oversees the law.

At the center of the outreach effort is a new hot line that the connector is creating to field calls from those with questions about the law and how to sign up for the new plans.

The call center is set to go live on May 1 and can start enrolling people immediately. The center will be able to enroll callers up until June 28 in time for the July 1 deadline, according to Rosemarie Day, the Connector’s deputy director and chief operating officer.

Those not enrolled by July 1 will face the loss of the $219 personal exemption on their income tax returns next year, and even more during the second year.

The center can help explain the law and point people to a web site for additional information on the various options of lower cost plans, she said.

She said she expects a high volume of calls, as many as 100,000 or more in the first two months, but is confident the system can handle them. One thing they can’t do is decide which plans people should sign up for.

“We can talk them through that, but we can’t make their decisions for them,” she said.

Day said there are other challenges ahead, including getting final information from insurers on the new plans. She said the ad campaign is set to begin during the last week of May.

Besides the ad campaign, the authority also plans to send flyers to at least 3 million taxpayers.

Some, including board members, said the authority has to do more than just setting up a hot line and wait for people to contact them.

“The call center is about people coming to us. That’s different from us reaching out to them,” said Celia Wcislo, a board member. “How are we talking to people? How do we go to them?”

The state is relying in part on the assistance of private, nonprofit and advocacy groups to get the word out.

The Rev. Hurmon Hamilton of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization said the group is ready to hit the streets to make sure people are taking advantage of the lower cost plans.

“We are signing up to be part of that great army of folk, hospitals and community centers and community groups who are going to do the massive work of trying to get people included,” he said.

Besides individuals, the authority is also trying to get the message out to the state’s 193,000 employers.

The private insurers offering lower cost plans through the authority include Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, ConnectiCare, Fallon Community Health Plan, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Health New England, Neighborhood Health Plan, and Tufts Health Plan.

Monthly premiums will rise and fall depending on the age of the person seeking insurance and where they live. For the average 37-year-old in the metropolitan Boston area premiums range from $175 to $288.

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