November 26, 2013

Obamacare: Bad News, Good News?

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

While we’re practicing our patience and watching the health-care law unfold, all Americans should optimistically be hoping that the good news stories of what the ACA intended to do – to provide affordable health insurance for all Americans, will be coming.

While the government contractors work furiously to ensure that the Health Insurance Marketplace website, healthcare.gov, will be able to successfully enroll potentially seven million Americans at the end of November as promised, we should all hope that the fixes made will be the end of the “bad” news of health-care reform or “Obamacare.” But new topics emerging suggest that the White House will be busy doing damage control over the coming months.

Despite profuse apologies by President Obama himself and Kathleen Sebelius announcing that the world can hold her “accountable for this debacle,” the damage has been done. The truth is that even staunch Obamacare supporters are now expressing discontent and the government must now win back their confidence and trust.

In September, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz said “President Obama’s signature health care law is “a good thing for the country,” in an interview with CNBC anchor and USA Today contributor Maria Bartiromo.  Thirty days after the launch of the Health Insurance Marketplace he went back on CNBC and said, “It might be a great strategy, but the execution is really flawed. It’s off the rails,” Schultz told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo. “What the country needs now is real honesty and transparency and truth about what’s really going on.”

On top of this, the White House now has to defend President Obama’s pledge that “If you’re one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance,” which he delivered upon the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act in June of 2012.

Media outlets are focused on reports that “hundreds of thousands” or “millions” of Americans are discovering that their health insurance is being cancelled because their plans don’t meet the standards created by the health law. In a recent Bloomberg  article, “Health Policies Canceled in Latest Hurdle for Obamacare,” according to Robert Laszewski, an insurance-industry consultant, about 19 million, or 80 percent of people who don’t have a company-hosted plan or insurance through the Medicare or Medicaid government programs, may have to find new health coverage.

This includes 300,000 Blue Cross and Blue Shield members in Florida, 280,000 customers in California, 180,000 Oregonians and more than 70,000 customers in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia, whose current plans don’t comply with the law.

The answer to this is to “shop around,” according to President Obama at a speech in Boston defending the Accountable Care Act and its performance to date. As reported in the National Journal and many other media outlets, he said, “So if you’re getting one of these letters, just shop around in the new marketplace. That’s what it’s for,” Obama said. “Because of the tax credits that we are offering, and the competition between insurers, most people are going to be able to get better, comprehensive healthcare plans for the same price or even cheaper than projected.”

While we’re practicing our patience and watching the health-care law unfold, all Americans should optimistically be hoping that the good news stories of what the ACA intended to do – to provide affordable health insurance for all Americans, will be coming.

In my next blog, we’ll examine the White House’s good news announcement that health-care premiums were “lower than expected.”

 

 

 

November 26, 2013

Getting a Handle on Obamacare – Part 2

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Questions that should have been answered with the official launch of The Health Insurance Marketplace were overshadowed by the spectacular failure of the federal government’s Healthcare.gov website. While President Obama’s administration works to fix the problems, we’ll look at basic but important things to know in this second part of “Getting a Handle on Obamacare.”

So what is the Health Insurance Marketplace or Exchange and who needs to enroll? The law requires just about everyone to have health insurance of some sort by next year. The 85 percent of Americans who already are covered by employer health plans or Medicare don’t have to bother with this at all.

States were given the option to create their own health exchanges, and nearly 20 did. But for residents of states that did not, Healthcare.gov is the place to research and purchase health insurance and apply for tax credit subsidies. Small businesses, with up to 50 employees, also can compare and enroll in health plans and find out if they are eligible for tax credits.

One of the best ways for individuals and small businesses to start is by taking a “test drive” on Healthcare.gov, which allows users to research plans without registering. Until the website is fixed, users likely will save time by not registering. There should be plenty of time to comfortably register and apply for 2014 coverage before the Dec. 31 deadline.

Registration isn’t impossible, given that more than 100,000 people had done so successfully as mid-November. But the Obama administration is far from meeting the Congressional Budget Office’s projection of enrolling 7 million people into private insurance and 9 million people into Medicaid by March 31, 2014.  Adrian Covert of CNN Money tried and concluded, “If you can get past the well-documented registration roadblock, the process of entering all the requisite information on you and your family is easy.”

Those who have an idea of what type of coverage is important to them – or what they can afford – should select a class of coverage called a tier. “Choosing a tier spits out a list of plans,” said Covert. “The results page will give you a basic overview of each plan, and if you see specific ones you like, you can tag them and get a more in-depth, side-by-side comparison.”

In case the Healthcare.gov site gets stuck or is slow, there’s no need struggle with the math; online health insurance calculators seemingly are everywhere including at WebMD and NPR. The Kaiser Family Foundation offers the Health Reform Subsidy Calculator, and NBC News offers one at “How Affordable is New Health Care Law, Really? Calculate Your Cost.”

Jeff Zients, the newly appointed chief White House economic adviser tasked to fix the log-jammed website has asked the American public to be patient. “We are confident that by the end of the November, Healthcare.gov will be smooth for the vast majority of users,” he said.

November 26, 2013

Getting a Handle on Obamacare – Part I

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

This is the first of two blogs that discuss how employers, employees and individuals can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. health-care reform or Obamacare, is making news again following the launch of www.HealthCare.gov, the health insurance marketplace (also known as a health insurance exchange) for people who live in states that don’t offer their own version. The news generally has been negative because of technology problems plaguing the website.

The purpose of HealthCare.gov is to bring information about health-insurance policies offered by many different insurance companies together in one place to make it easier for individuals, families and small business to compare features, benefits and prices and apply for policies.  (The section for small businesses is called Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP.)

In a CBS This Morning report, Business Analyst Jill Schlesinger put it this way, “It’s like using Travelocity to understand the cost of various airlines flying to your desired destination, rather than visiting each airline’s website to find the same information.”

As some feared with the launch of this super-sized technology project, HealthCare.gov could not handle the millions of inquiries made during the first several days of operation and frustrated many users. The site was reported to be very slow, was apt to freeze and, according to some insurers, was sending incomplete or incorrect information from applicants.

One CNN reporter documented her experience attempting to create an account which was successful only after 14 days and much frustration. “I will be the first to tell you that the website launch was rockier than we wanted it to be,” said Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as reported in a recent USA Today article.

President Obama held a news conference to express his displeasure with the online process. But he stressed that the ultimate benefits of the Affordable Care Act will outweigh the short-term problems. “The essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine,” he said. “In some cases, actually, it’s exceeding expectations. The prices are lower than expected, and the choice is greater than we expected.”

Navigating the enrollment process may be tedious at best for a while, and consumers will need to be patient.  Fortunately, there is ample time. As noted in NPR’s story, “So What’s the Real Deadline for Obamacare Sign-Up?,” the enrollment deadline is Dec. 15 to ensure coverage beginning January 1, 2014. Open enrollment for the year 2014 will continue through March 31, 2014. After that, you can enroll for the current year only if you have a major life event like a job loss, birth, marriage or divorce.

The other good news is that although technology experts have lambasted the infrastructure and systems integration capability of the site, consumers do not have to worry about the privacy of their information. John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, a cloud computer service provider, said, “after looking at the available code, the site is very secure.”

HealthCare.gov offers answers to questions including “What Do Small Businesses Need to Know?” and “What If I’m Losing Job-Based Insurance?” for individuals and families?  While the site enables consumers to submit applications for coverage, it is important to note that the insurance ultimately will be provided by private insurers, not the federal or state governments.

There are even websites that have been created specifically to help people navigate the health insurance marketplace including Obamacare Facts.com. CNN has an abundance of information and stories dedicated to Obamacare, as does the website run by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you don’t have time to sift through page after page and site after site, Healthcare.gov boils down the basics in “Get Covered: A One-Page Guide to the Health Insurance Marketplace.”

 

November 26, 2013

How Health-Care Reform Will Impact the Job Market and Job Growth, Part Two

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

For all the commentators and politicians who are outspoken in their belief that the Affordable Care Act will boost the U.S. job market, there are an equal number who preach an opposite gospel.

A provoking USA Today headline last December, “Health Care Law May Mean Less Hiring in 2013,” quoted Chief Economist Mark Zandi at Moody’s Analytics as saying that health-care reform laws “will have a negative impact on job creation.” According to a study cited in the article by the human resources consulting firm Mercer, many businesses plan to “bring on more part-time workers next year, trim the hours of full-time employees or curtail hiring because of the new health-care law.”

Those who warn the law will damage the job market base their conclusions mainly on the “employer mandate,” which says that businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees must provide health care coverage to their full-time employees (those working 30 or more hours per week), or pay steep penalties beginning in 2015.

This is especially relevant to retailers, restaurants and hotels – and therefore to states that rely on tourism – because they employ large numbers of part-time and seasonal employees, including many who work about 30 hours a week.

The franchise industry, which claims to represent nearly 18 million jobs and $2.1 trillion, strongly opposes the Affordable Care Act mandate. The International Franchise Association this year published a white paper with new data by the nonpartisan Hudson Institute showing that the employer mandate “puts 3.2 million full-time jobs at risk in the franchise industry nationwide, and will add more than $6.4 billion in increased costs to franchise businesses.”

IFA characterized the prospective impact of the Affordable Care Act as “anti-small business growth.”

A Wall Street Journal article in February, also citing the Mercer study, said “the damage won’t be limited to franchisees or restaurants,” finding that 67 percent of retail and wholesale firms that do not offer insurance coverage today would be more inclined to change their workforce strategy so that fewer employees qualify as full time.

IFA was one of several organizations and businesses to support legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to increase the health-care law’s definition of a full-time employee from 30 to 40 hours per week. The bill, “Forty Hours is Full-Time Act of 2013, also would increase the size of an employer considered “large” under the law and delay the employer mandate penalty.

“As the economy shows modest signs of recovery, we should be working with employers to encourage additional job growth,” Donnelly and Collins said in a Wall Street Journal article speaking about their bill. “Yet we are hearing from small businesses, public school systems and nonprofit organizations that they are cutting employee hours and forgoing additional hiring in an effort to ensure that they are in compliance with the law. But it is clear that the definition of a full-time employee under the Affordable Care Act is not encouraging the economy to grow and is reducing the take-home pay of more and more Americans.”

While those with opposing views on health-care reform each can supply research and statistics to support their positions, it is evident that deadlines and rules may flex as the Affordable Care Act plays out in real-life situations. The only certainty is that the outcome of most of the debated issues surrounding the law are impossible to predict.

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