Jan. 31 the last day to get health insurance
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WASHINGTON – Jan. 25, 2016 – With the deadline for enrollment looming at the end of the month, those who are confused or ambivalent about getting health coverage under the Affordable Care Act might heed the advice of Lisa Chan.
"I'd highly recommend to come on in," the University of South Florida junior said outside a USF "Nav-Lab" event in the school's Student Health Services Annex. "It went very well. If I hadn't come in, I wouldn't have learned so much."
The recent USF session was one of a series of community outreach and enrollment events scheduled to help consumers learn more about their coverage options as the Jan. 31 deadline to enroll through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace approaches.
"Navigators" and others who help people sign up for coverage under the ACA, President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement, are out in force.
"We're coming down the home stretch," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a major ACA advocate. "Most of the low fruit has been picked; now the target audiences that we're going after are a little bit tougher to reach – students, Hispanics, African-Americans. So we are really going to aggressively go after it these last two weeks and try to finish strong."
Buckhorn has opened up city parks and rec centers during the ACA open enrollment period. There is a slew of additional events lined up for people to get help with the marketplace. USF's Florida Covering Kids & Families, the Florida Community Health Action Information Network (CHAIN) and the Family Health Care Foundation are all providing one-on-one assistance.
"It's not just about health insurance, it's about having access to health care, and a lot of people didn't have that before," said Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids & Families. "It's having that conversation, it's about people leaving with access to health care and services that they didn't have before." Ray is riding a record of success in ACA enrollment.
Florida leads the nation in the third open-enrollment period since Obama signed the ACA into law. Nearly 1.6 million Floridians had signed up as of Jan. 9; Texas is the only other state with more than 1 million enrollees, with 1.1 million. In the Tampa Bay area, more than 260,000 have signed up.
Nationwide, 8.7 million consumers have signed-up for health coverage through the HealthCare.gov website or had their coverage automatically renewed.
The Florida numbers are particularly impressive because the Sunshine State has the nation's second-highest rate of uninsured residents younger than 65, with 3.8 million people, or about one-fifth of the population, without coverage.
"As we get to the end of the third year, it's permeating at a public level where people are able to articulate (the ACA), they are less uninformed about what it is when we talk about the marketplace, people know who to call, they know that there's a choice," said Ray. "I think the message is getting out there."
In September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a $5.9 million grant for the USF-led effort. That was the largest sign-up group in the country and brought USF's haul to $14.5 million in federal Navigator grants over the last three years.
HHS reported that for the last open enrollment season, 93 percent of Florida consumers who were signed up qualified for an average tax credit of $294 per month through the marketplace. The agency said 72 percent of Florida enrollees obtained coverage for $100 or less after any applicable tax credits.
The math didn't work for Francesca Morea, a senior physics major who attended the recent USF navigator session after doctors pressed her to obtain insurance coverage. Subsidies in the form of tax credits are only available to applicants whose incomes fall between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $11,770 for a single-person household.
Not everyone's aware that you can be too broke to qualify.
"I just didn't qualify for anything I could afford," Morea said. She lives on student loans and financial aid that doesn't qualify as income.
But navigators at the event steered her toward the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan, a program that provides residents living at or below the poverty level access to health care. She said her navigator "was very nice, and very helpful."
If the uninsured need any more motivation to enroll, consider that the penalties for going bare continue to rise.
For 2016, the penalty assessed upon filing the federal tax return is $695 per adult or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever is higher, and $347.50 for each child under 18.
"If you miss the deadline, you could possibly find yourself paying a lot of money for a penalty and getting nothing for that," said Ray. "Most people were surprised to get hit with higher penalty. … They're realizing it's not nearly that affordable."
Buckhorn offered this advice to those sitting on the fence as the deadline approaches:
"Think about your families. Think about your quality of life, think about lifting that burden of that fear of having a catastrophic illness that you can't pay for. It makes all the sense in the world. It shouldn't be a Democratic or a Republican issue, it's all about giving people the opportunity to purchase health care on the marketplace and make sure their families are taken care of."
Copyright © 2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.), Jerome R. Stockfisch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.