Kansas braces for opening of health care exchanges
By ROXANA HEGEMAN
WICHITA -- Kansas' health care exchange is set to go online Tuesday, but even the biggest proponents of the federal health care law that created the marketplace suggest that consumers might want to wait until any glitches have been fixed before they buy coverage.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP leaders of the Legislature have resisted implementing the Affordable Care Act since its passage three years ago, arguing that it represents a costly expansion of government and limiting the state's involvement in establishing and promoting its centerpiece, the health care exchange.
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. Details of the plans sold through Kansas' exchange wouldn't be available until Tuesday, and 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.
"My recommendation is don't worry about Tuesday. That sounds flip, but any insurance you buy is not effective until Jan. 1, anyway," said Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project. The initiative was funded by private health foundations in Kansas to provide education and resources to educate the public on the new health care law and insurance exchanges.
Individuals can start buying coverage through the exchange on Tuesday. Weisgrau said people won't start incurring tax penalties for not having coverage until after March 31 of next year, although consumers must enroll in a plan by Dec. 15 if they want their coverage to start in January.
While the current focus is on Tuesday's rollout, Weisgrau said that March 31 date "will probably be a political target, but in the long-term success I don't think it is going to matter much."
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 the state's insurance commissioner, Sandy Praeger, planned to roll out.
Kansas legislators also inserted provisions into this year's and next year's state budgets blocking any expansion of the state's Medicaid program in line with the federal health care overhaul.
Praeger, who is a GOP moderate, is rare among Kansas Republicans, in that she describes the law as an important step toward universal health coverage. At a town hall meeting Monday in Topeka, she urged the public to give the exchanges time to work out the glitches.
"Why hurry?" Praeger told the crowd "Let someone else be the guinea pig."
Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed to this story from Topeka, Kan.