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SPOTLIGHT
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Kan. official advises patience on health exchange

Published on -10/1/2013, 2:25 PM

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By ROXANA HEGEMAN

Associated Press

WICHITA -- Kansas residents attempting to buy health insurance coverage Tuesday at the state's new online marketplace faced some delays, but state officials urged patience in dealing with the federally run exchange.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Republican who strongly opposed the federal health care overhaul that led to creation of the exchange, immediately declared that it was "not ready for prime time."

But Linda Sheppard, health policy director for the state Insurance Department, said glitches would not be unusual for any rollout of major new technology, even without the partial shutdown of the federal government caused by the battle over the budget and attempts by Republicans to delay the health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

"We have been cautioning people to wait a while to try to get on the exchange," Sheppard said. "People wanting to get on the exchange will have to exercise some patience."

The online marketplace is a key part of the federal overhaul of health care, and it's meant to help uninsured Americans find coverage. The latest U.S. Census bureau estimates are that about 358,000 Kansans have no health insurance.

The marketplace website for Kansas was available mid-morning Tuesday, the first day it was open, but a message said enough people were visiting that logging in could take time.

Huelskamp, who represents the sprawling and strongly GOP-leaning 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas, said he attempted to get on the site at midnight and "met with error messages, unfinished security forms, and misspelled notices at every click." He called the exchange "unworkable."

The federal government is running Kansas' exchange because Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP leaders of the Legislature have resisted implementing the Affordable Care Act since its passage three years ago. They have argued that it represents a costly expansion of government.

Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a GOP moderate, is rare among Kansas Republicans for not harshly criticizing the overhaul.

On the eve of the exchange's opening, some Kansas health care organizations that were awarded federal grants to help guide consumers through the process still hadn't hired all of the "navigators" needed or finished training many of those who were hired. The Kansas Insurance Department still hadn't received Spanish-language pamphlets it ordered in June meant to make it easier for the state's burgeoning Hispanic population to understand the health care law.

But Praeger and advocates for the uninsured noted that people won't start incurring tax penalties for not having coverage until after March 31 of next year and that consumers have until Dec. 15 if they want their coverage to start in January.

Manuela Oroteza, a 48-year-old cook at Wichita State University, said she was eager to see if she could afford health care through the new exchange. Her family lives off her $10-per-hour salary and can't afford the coverage the school offers its employees. "The thing is, I don't make that much money and then between taxes and the insurance my paycheck will not be enough to cover my expenses," she said.

Both she and her husband both take daily medication for diabetes, and the family currently relies on a free clinic run by the Catholic Church for their health care. She said she resents Brownback for refusing federal funding to expand Medicaid in Kansas and is confused about the new health care law and wished someone could explain it to her in Spanish.

"If even those people who speak English are confused and don't understand it, now imagine what it is like for us Hispanics," she said in Spanish.

As has been the case in many other Republican-led states, Brownback and Kansas' Republican legislative leaders have left it to the federal government to set up the Kansas exchange. In 2011, Brownback refused a $31.5 million federal grant that would have gone toward setting up the computer infrastructure for Kansas' exchange. It also would have funded a $10 million public education campaign that Praeger had planned.

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Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed to this story from Topeka, Kan.

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