Access Health chief: Get help applying for Obamacare coverage, and don’t use paper

With just over a week to go before the state’s new health insurance marketplace launches, its leader has some advice for potential shoppers: Get help enrolling. And please, whatever you do, avoid the paper application.

“We’re on a very aggressive anti-paper campaign,” said Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange, a marketplace created by the federal health reform law. “Paper is bad for the enrollee. It’s clunky, it’s awkward, it takes at minimum six days to process.”

And Counihan said that without assistance, people are liable to fill out the applications with inaccurate or incomplete information.

“Don’t do something this complicated on your own on paper,” he said. “It’s just not going to work well and people are going to be sending stuff in incomplete through no fault of their own.”

There are several alternatives: An online application, a call center (855-805-4325), and insurance brokers and members of community organizations that have received training in the enrollment process and will have laptops intended only for handling applications.

Access Health will open Oct. 1 — next Tuesday — for people to enroll in health plans offered by private insurers, although the earliest the coverage will take effect is Jan. 1. The new marketplace is intended to serve the uninsured, people who buy coverage on their own, and small employers. Many of the customers are expected to qualify for discounted premiums, subsidized by the federal government.

Officials expect that most of the application activity won’t take place until late November, because few people will want to pay their premiums three months early.

Counihan has been trying to temper expectations for the exchange’s launch, warning that the first year will be rocky and that the shopping experience will be “imperfect” early on. He said that’s to be expected with new, complicated programs, and said it should be judged by what happens in the first three years, not the first few days.

Last month, Counihan projected that 30 percent to 40 percent of the exchange’s applications would come in on paper — a figure he said he hoped would be lower. He previously worked at Massachusetts’ exchange, established by that state’s 2006 health reform law, and said that 80 percent of that exchange’s applications were submitted online.

To get coverage that takes effect Jan. 1, people must enroll through Access Health by Dec. 15. The open enrollment period for people seeking individual coverage runs through March 31. Although most people will face a penalty for going without insurance as of next year, those who are uninsured for fewer than three months won’t be penalized — meaning that people can sign up after Jan. 1 without running afoul of the health law’s individual mandate.

To help people sign up for coverage, the state is expected to have about 300 “in-person assisters” from community groups that include churches and temples, free clinics, labor unions, towns, health advocacy organizations and hospitals. Six larger organizations have been designated as “navigators,” and will coordinate outreach efforts. In addition, insurance brokers can receive training in the process.

Those doing the outreach work will undergo background checks and training. They’ll have laptops to help people enroll, but the machines won’t have hard drives — so they can’t store data — and will only be able to connect to the Access Health server to transmit application information, Counihan said.

Applying for coverage will require a variety of types of information, including Social Security numbers for everyone who would be covered, information on citizenship or immigration status, tax returns and information on income for every household member who needs coverage, and information on any current health coverage.

Beginning Jan. 1, applications for Medicaid will also go through Access Health’s system. People who apply for coverage but aren’t sure if they qualify for Medicaid or a private insurance plan through the exchange can submit one application to Access Health and will be matched up with the appropriate type of coverage.

Someone seeking Medicaid for next year can apply through Access Health as of Oct. 1. But anyone who wants Medicaid sooner should apply through the state Department of Social Services.

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