May 8, 2013 -- Now that the federal government is building health insurance Marketplaces (also called Exchanges) in 34 states, the question is: Will customers come?
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the government division overseeing the roll out of the new Marketplaces, is getting ready. It recently announced that thousands of people will be hired to staff call centers tied to the Marketplaces.
Beginning in June, 7,000 to 9,000 additional people will answer phones through CMS’s "1-800-Medicare" help line, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The staff will answer questions about how to apply and enroll in the new insurance plans that will be offered in the states where the federal government is partially or wholly running the Exchange.
Under the Affordable Care Act, on Oct. 1, 2013, people and small businesses will be able to purchase insurance through a Marketplace. Officials hope it will be as easy to operate as web-based travel shopping sites like Travelocity. In the Exchange, people can look for different insurance options and decide the type of plan they would like to buy. They will also learn if they qualify for tax credits to help pay for insurance or for Medicaid, the health insurance program for people with low incomes. Insurance coverage is set to begin in 2014.
Educating people and small businesses on what insurance to buy may be a big challenge, given that many people still don’t know there is an option to buy health insurance. An April Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 42% of the public didn’t know the Affordable Care Act had become law. Among that group, 19% thought it had been struck down by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress.
Of those people with incomes of $40,000 or less -- those most likely to benefit from the law -- about 56% said they didn’t have enough information to know how the law would impact their families.
CMS has been spending money to make the public more aware, including $28.2 million on the call centers. The funding was awarded to Alexandria, Va.-based Vangent (a unit of defense contracting firm General Dynamics), which has been operating the "1-800-Medicare" call centers for about a decade.