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Blumenthal: Budget battle won't derail Obamacare

Published 6:43 am, Monday, September 23, 2013
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U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal flatly predicts that Washington dysfunction won't stop Obamacare from starting Oct. 1, the same date that the federal government faces a shutdown because of congressional failure to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year.

The Connecticut Democrat said his office is getting calls from constituents asking if the budget gridlock in Congress will stop Obamacare from going into effect.

"My answer is it will be implemented, regardless," he said in an interview.

The spotlight on the budget impasse shifts to the Senate this week where the Democratic majority is expected to approve a temporary spending bill continuing the federal government into December without the House-passed provision that would eliminate Obamacare.

"I also note that certain parts of the law have already been implemented, such as the provision allowing young adults to continue to be covered under their parents' insurance policies," Blumenthal said.

His sentiments echoed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said that any continuing resolution without funding for the health-care initiative is "dead."

"Republicans are simply postponing for a few days the inevitable choice they must face: Pass a clean bill to fund the government, or force a shutdown," Reid added.

That ominous deadline comes Oct. 1, the start of the 2014 fiscal year, when government spending will come to a halt unless Congress and President Barack Obama agree on temporary stopgap measure.

The health reform program is being implemented by individual states who have an Oct. 1 mandate to have Web-based health insurance exchanges up and running to enable individuals and employers to shop for policies.

The chief executive officer of the Connecticut insurance exchange says the state is ready.

Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, said the exchange "is on track to be fully operational and ready for consumers to shop and enroll on Oct. 1."

There will be "bumps in the road" as the rollout gets underway, Counihan said, "but we believe we are as well positioned as any state to help consumers find quality, affordable health plan coverage."

In Washington, Connecticut lawmakers have been fielding an array of questions about the state's insurance exchange that will enable individuals and companies to buy coverage, even though they have pre-existing health conditions that may have disqualified them from coverage in the past.

Enrollment between Oct. 1 and Dec. 15 enables a customer to start health coverage on Jan. 1 under the federal Affordable Care Act enacted more than three years ago.

The law also says that people lacking health coverage either through their employer or purchased on their own will have to pay a penalty when they file their 2014 federal income tax returns.

Connecticut is one of 19 states that have organized their own health insurance exchanges; the other states have defaulted to a federally administered insurance exchange or to a state-federal partnership.

Access Health CT has set up call centers in Hartford (43 employees) and New York City (37 employees) to handle questions and to help callers navigate accesshealthct.com, the web-based exchange.

Dave Lynch, manager of the call centers, said the most common question his staff hears is about the cost of obtaining health insurance. The call center's telephone number is 855-805-4325.

"That question contains so many variables -- single, head of household, how many people in the family -- that it takes time to respond to each person," Lynch said. "We also ask about the callers' income to determine if they are eligible for tax subsidies to pay for the insurance premiums."

Calls range from an average of 8 minutes on the brief side to 45-50 minutes on the longer side, Lynch said.

The Connecticut Insurance Department has approved insurance carriers Anthem, United Healthcare, ConnectiCare and HealthyCT to offer insurance coverage on the exchange.

Here's what some Connecticut lawmakers say they have been hearing:

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, said, "There's a lot of confusion out there" about Obamacare. Many questions he fields deal with access to tax credits to help pay premiums. Senior citizens also ask what Obamacare means to Medicare. The answer: It has no impact on Medicare, although over 10 years it expands Medicare's drug coverage.

Himes scoffs at the occasional question about why members of Congress are exempt from Obamacare. His answer: "They are not. In fact, members of Congress and their staffs are the only people in the country who will be required to purchase their insurance on the exchange."

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5, said she often gets questions about how to sign up and where to sign up. She has assigned a staffer in her New Britain district office to act as her coordinator with Access Health CT, the federal Small Business Administration and constituents who have questions on the Affordable Care Act.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., says he gets more questions about the U.S. involvement with Syria than he's getting about Obamacare, but predicted that would change after Oct. 1. Insurance questions that he and his staff get almost always boil down to "`What does it mean for me?' The result: We are doing casework, going through on a one-on-one basis on what it will mean to them. They want to know about costs and how their present insurance will change."

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, said the common theme of inquiries directed to her deal with concerns about how affordable it will be to purchase health insurance through the marketplaces. She said many people appear to be unaware of the tax credits for some insurance buyers.

Matt Buettgens, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said Access Health CT is set to crank up its marketing after Oct. 1. He predicted the volume of public response will pick up after that.

Buettgens also gave Access Health CT high marks for preparation. "They've done the testing of the system and are pleased with the results."