Health law sign-up process won't be easy

Oct. 1 is enrollment startup time, and filling out the forms could be daunting for some, experts say
A draft copy of the 21-page Health and Human Services Department form proposed for use to apply for low-cost insurance from Medicaid or the Children?s Health Insurance Program is shown in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The government?s application for health insurance, which uninsured people will use to get taxpayer-subsidized coverage has multiple questions about income, household composition, employer coverage, and even race and ethnicity. It is more complicated than some people may expect.AP

WASHINGTON — Applying for benefits under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul could be as daunting as doing your taxes.

The government's draft application runs 15 pages for a three-person family. An outline of the online version has 21 steps, some with additional questions.

Pros and cons of the signup process

The Associated Press

  • Pro: If you apply online, you're supposed to be able to get near-instantaneous verification of your identity, income and citizenship or immigration status. An online government clearinghouse called the Data Services Hub will ping Social Security for birth records, IRS for income data and Homeland Security for immigration status. "That is a brand new thing in the world," said Sam Karp of California Healthcare Foundation.
  • Con: If your household income has changed in the past year or so and you want help paying your premiums, be prepared to do some extra work. You're applying for help based on your expected income in 2014. But the latest tax return the IRS would have is for 2012. If you landed a better-paying job, got laid off, or your spouse went back to work, you'll have to provide added documentation.
  • Pro: Even with all the complexity, the new system could still end up being simpler than what some people go through now to buy their own insurance. You won't have to fill out a medical questionnaire, although you do have to answer whether you have a disability. Even if you are disabled, you can still get coverage for the same premium a healthy person of your age would pay.
  • Con: If anyone in your household is offered health insurance on the job but does not take it, be prepared for some particularly head-scratching questions. For example: "What's the name of the lowest cost self-only health plan the employee listed above could enroll in at this job?"

Seven months before the Oct. 1 start of enrollment season for millions of uninsured Americans, the idea that getting health insurance could be as easy as shopping online at Amazon or Travelocity is starting to look like wishful thinking.

At least three major federal agencies, including the IRS, will scrutinize your application. Checking your identity, income and citizenship is supposed to happen in real time, if you apply online.

That's just the first part of the process, which lets you know if you qualify for financial help. The government asks to see what you're making because Obama's Affordable Care Act is means-tested, with lower-income people getting the most generous help to pay premiums.

Once you're finished with the money part, actually picking a health plan will require additional steps, plus a basic understanding of insurance jargon.

And it's a mandate, not a suggestion. The law says virtually all Americans must carry health insurance starting next year, although most will just keep the coverage they now have through their jobs, Medicare or Medicaid.

Some are concerned that a lot of uninsured people will be overwhelmed and simply give up.

"This lengthy draft application will take a considerable amount of time to fill out and will be difficult for many people to be able to complete," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group supporting the health care law. "It does not get you to the selection of a plan."

Drafts of the paper application and a 60-page description of the online version were quietly posted online by the Health and Human Services Department, seeking feedback from industry and consumer groups. Those materials, along with a recent HHS presentation to insurers, run counter to the vision of simplicity promoted by administration officials.

"We are not just signing up for a dating service here," said Sam Karp, a vice president of the California HealthCare Foundation, who nonetheless gives the administration high marks for distilling it all into a workable form. Karp was part of an independent group that separately designed a model application.

The government estimates its online application will take a half-hour to complete, on average. If you need a break, or have to gather supporting documents, you can save your work and come back later. The paper application is estimated to take an average of 45 minutes.

The new coverage starts next Jan. 1. Uninsured people will apply through new state-based markets, also called exchanges.

If you just want to buy health insurance in your state's exchange, and you're not interested in getting any help from the government you'll still have to fill out an application, but it will be shorter.

Online — Insurance Affordability Application package: http:tinyurl.com/akkvu9f



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