Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog

Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog. Our blog discusses various topics around how health care reform is affecting the people of Illinois. We present a variety of different perspectives from health care experts, both from our state, and nationally. For more information please visit IllinoisHealthMatters.org.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Four Gifts the Affordable Care Act Has Given Americans by Its Fourth Birthday

Birthday cakeOn March 23, 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) turned four. In its relatively short life, the ACA has already accomplished a great deal. To celebrate, here’s a list of the top four gifts that the ACA has given to the American people:
1. No More Pre-existing Condition Exclusions
Before the ACA was law, insurance companies routinely denied people health coverage due to“pre-existing conditions,” which could range from common chronic conditions such as asthma and arthritis to diseases such as cancer or mental illness. However, as of September 2010, children could no longer be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition, and as of January 2014, adults are now enjoying that same right.

By way of example, on 
HelpHub, the Illinois site that provides technical assistance to enrollment specialists, we have heard many stories about people who are beginning to obtain insurance after being told for years that they are were “uninsurable.” Families USA estimates that 64.8 million non-elderly Americans—or 1 in 4 people—have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions that could have led to denials of coverage in the past. That’s over 5.6 million people in Illinois alone who can no longer be turned down or charged more for health insurance.

Though over half of the public know about this “gift” from the ACA, according to a January 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, 
53% of the uninsured remain unaware of this provision. We need to continue to publicize this incredible benefit of the law.
2. Financial Help to Obtain Insurance
Aside from pre-existing condition exclusions, another major barrier to accessing health insurance has been cost. Since employers have not been required to offer coverage, many low-wage workers never received an offer of coverage and were priced out of the individual insurance market.
Through the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, the ACA created three new ways to make health insurance more affordable. The first is premium tax credits, which can be taken by Marketplace consumers in advance to lower the amount of premium the individual or family must pay for their coverage. Consumers with incomes under $45,960 for a single individual and $94,200 for a family of four are eligible for these credits. The Department of Health and Human Services reports, for example, that nearly 5 in 10 uninsured single young adults eligible for the Marketplace could pay $50 or less per month after tax credits for coverage in 2014.
The second form of financial help provided by the ACA is cost-sharing reductions. These reduce the out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles, copays, and co-insurance, that health care consumers can expect. Cost sharing reductions are available to health insurance Marketplace consumers who make between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level who purchase a Silver plan. Why does this matter? It means lower prices for doctors’ visits, prescription drugs, and other care that people need—which is particularly important for people who utilize a high amount of services.
Recent enrollment numbers indicate that people are signing up for these subsidies, too. As of February 2014, 85% of Healthcare.gov enrollees qualified for premium tax credits, while 67% consumers chose Silver plans, indicating that they may also qualify for cost sharing reductions.
3. Medicaid Expansion
The ACA mandated a Medicaid expansion to all qualified adults below 138% of the federal poverty level (about $15,800/year for a single individual); this mandate filled a huge coverage gap in Medicaid eligibility for low-income adults. In June 2012, however, the United States Supreme Court made this expansion optional, and currently just half the states and Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. Illinois is one of those states; last July, Governor Quinn signed the Medicaid Expansion (SB 26) into law, and according to reports at the recent Illinois Health Reform Implementation Council meeting enrollment into Medicaid has already exceeded expectations.
The number of Illinois residents enrolled in ACA Adult Medicaid is now at 200,000. This includes all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) auto-enrollment and enrollment in CountyCare, the early expansion of Medicaid in Cook County, the largest county in Illinois )which includes Chicago and some of its collar suburbs). Of pending applications, the state expects another 150,000 will be eligible for ACA Adult Medicaid. Overall for 2014, it is anticipated that Illinois will enroll over 400,000 adults into the new Medicaid program. 
Together, the Premium Tax Credits, Cost Sharing Reductions and the ACA Medicaid Expansion provide low-income families with the gift of affordable health care. 
4. Essential Health BenefitsThe ACA gift that people probably know the least about is the 10 Essential Health Benefits (EHB) that must be included in Medicaid and health plans in the individual and small group markets. Under EHB, not only must plans now include a range of free preventive services and screenings, but also prescription drugs, lab tests, dental and vision care for children, and mental health and substance use disorder services, among other critical services. The Essential Health Benefits package ensures comprehensive services are included in your policy so you aren’t left paying premiums for shoddy coverage.
These gifts have already started to make a huge difference to the American people. The uninsured rate is decreasing; and stories from around the country are streaming in about people who are able to see a doctor when they hadn’t for years, families who are able to afford their premiums every month, and individuals who finally have peace of mind because they have a good health insurance policy when they need it.
We can’t wait to see what the next four years of the ACA brings.
By Stephani Becker
Senior Policy Specialist
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
This blog courtesy of the Shriver Brief

Blogger Tricks

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Obamacare Lady: What made me want this job?

Last year, I accepted a position to be an In-Person Counselor with the State of Illinois. You may also have heard the terms Navigator or Assister used to describe this job. I help people with the Affordable Care Act. A few people have called me, “The Obamacare Lady.”  Yes, I help people understand “Obamacare” and help them determine what help they may qualify for in obtaining health insurance.

What made me want this job you ask? Well, I was drawn to this job for a number of reasons:
First, I like helping people. Prior to starting the training for this job, the only thing I knew about the Affordable Care Act was that it would help people like my Mother get cheaper healthcare. My Mom had a heart attack a few years ago and since then, her health insurance premiums went through the roof. And by roof, I mean they were more than a mortgage payment on a 3 bedroom house!! Yikes! That seemed crazy to me. So, I wanted to do this job to help people like my Mother and clients like Kathy. Kathy* is a small business owner and has a pre-existing condition. Her business has been quite profitable in the past, but since 2008, things have been rough. Due to the high costs of health insurance, especially with her pre-existing condition, she could not afford to pay her rent and eat if she purchased a health plan. So, she hasn’t had health insurance for years. She has been going without her medication and has just been hoping that her condition has not progressed. We met and completed an application together and found out that she is eligible for a tax credit and reduced out of pocket expenses.  She is thrilled to be able to purchase a health insurance plan for $ 150 a month. These stories are my every day.

Second, I’m all about saving money. I love to shop for the best price for everything. I wait for sales, clip coupons and save my money for a rainy day. I get a little thrill out of helping someone save hundreds of dollars on their health insurance. It’s fun for me.

Third, I like to know the facts. This has been quite the topic of conversation. Almost everyone has an opinion. Over the years, it seems our news sources now always have a particular slant one direction or another. It is pretty difficult to find someone that will give you both sides to a problem or issue. So, my solution was to get boots on the ground and learn about the ACA myself and make my own decisions.

This job is not for the faint of heart. The reason that I have kept this job is that I am persistent and resilient. On a typical day, I get to see a formerly stressed, worried and confused individual walk out of my office with a little less weight on their shoulders, a little more money in their pocket and much more confident about their future. But getting there isn’t always easy. The rules to the Affordable Care Act are complex and each person’s situation is different, but that has been the fun part of being “The Obamacare Lady.” I meet so many interesting people and have a bird’s eye view of the diversity in our state. Illinoisans are beautiful, generous and hard-working.

Back in October, when the website wasn’t working very well, every person asked me if people were treating me okay. They were concerned that someone would take their anger and frustration out on me. Not a single person did. Then, people were concerned about all “those people” that might be taking advantage and defrauding the system. They wanted to make sure there were ways in place to catch the “cheaters.” After a while, all these questions made me laugh. No. Everyone I meet with is just like you. We want the same things. We want to provide things like health insurance for ourselves and our family. We are willing to sacrifice and work hard to do it. We want to obey the law. We want to be honest and tell our truth. We want to pay our own way and don’t want anything for free. Our politics and opinions on this Affordable Care Act are varied to be sure, but the similarities among us are so close. We are too hung up on headlines and sensationalism to see it.    

By Barb Silnes
In-Person Counselor

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why We Built HealthPlanRatings.org – and What Makes it Different

Here at Consumers' CHECKBOOK, what we’ve always focused on is helping consumers make their best choices. And we felt that right now, choosing insurance plans on the Marketplace is difficult and confusing for most consumers, and that Healthcare.gov doesn't give consumers the key information they need to choose the best plan.

So what we did was build a model for how to get consumers to their best health plan choices – and get them there quickly. We launched this Health Plan Comparison tool at www.HealthPlanRatings.org.

This tool actually compares every plan available in the Illinois Marketplace based on total estimated cost (not just premiums or deductibles), plan quality, doctor availability, and other key factors. But it's designed to take consumers with little or no knowledge of insurance through a few simple steps – which take about five minutes – to help them choose the best plan for them.

Although it is intended to be a model for the country, right now the Health Plan Comparison tool only includes plans in one state: Illinois. Our hope is that the Feds and states that are running the Marketplaces will learn from what we have done and make their Marketplaces work better for consumers for the next open enrollment period, this Fall. Meanwhile, we want to have as many Illinois consumers as possible use the tool right now.

Here are some examples of what we've done:

COST. This is the primary consideration for most consumers when purchasing health insurance. Right now, Healthcare.gov lets you compare plans, but it just gives you the premium and the amounts of deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance, etc., for various health care services and products. Since it is all but impossible to calculate the likely total cost for each plan based on this confusing mass of benefit information, consumers often choose based on premium alone, or some other unreliable shortcut. Instead, our model uses actuarial analysis of data from large health-care-usage databases to calculate an Estimated Average Total Cost (premiums plus out-of-pocket costs) for a family of the same size, ages, health statuses, and other characteristics. That gives you a single dollar amount for each plan, making it easy to compare plans.

RISK. The Marketplace gives a consumer little or no help assessing risks of having a "bad year," or what the cost of an event such as heart attack could be. We calculate the cost in bad years and the probability that a family like yours will have such a year, giving you an easy-to-understand, easy-to-compare measure of "Risk" with each plan.

DOCTORS. For many people, whether they will be able to keep their physician – or be able to have one they like – is a key consideration in choosing a plan. But it can be challenging finding out which plans have the doctors you care about available in their networks by going to each of the insurers' doctor directories one at a time. So we combined them into an "All-Plan Doctor Directory" and when you see the list of available plans, you see which of your preferred doctors are in each plan.

QUALITY. All plans are not alike in the quality of care or service their members get, and the Marketplace gives little or no information on the quality of each plan. But we actually provide quality ratings. For all the plans, we initially display a simple overall quality score, and you can personalize the score based on the aspects of plan quality that are most important to you.

We believe that the Health Plan Comparison tool will save many consumers thousands of dollars and connect them to good care and service. It was a lot of work creating this website. We launched it two weeks ago, and did a demo for about 200 Navigators at a meeting set up by Get Covered Illinois. We want to reach out and help as many consumers as possible before March 31. Please take a look at www.HealthPlanRatings.org. Here is a sample plan-comparison page:

One more thing. We have been asked why we, based in Washington, DC, chose Illinois for our model plan comparison tool. There are various reasons, including the fact that it is a large, diverse state, with major urban and rural populations; has a lot of creative, consumer-oriented leaders; and has a substantial number of plans in the Marketplace. And okay, I admit it: we have some personal connections: My mom and dad were both born and raised in Illinois (Lexington and Lincoln); I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School; the director of our health plan ratings work got a Masters in opera (very different from what he has done for many years for us) from University of Illinois and sang sometimes in Chicago before spending eight years singing opera in Europe; and we publish one of our regional versions of Consumers' CHECKBOOK magazine in Chicago, with ratings or service firms, from auto repair shops to plumbers to doctors and veterinarians, and thus have reason for frequent trips to do Chicago TV appearances talking about our findings.

We really hope that you will tell everyone who might still be looking for insurance, or helping others look for insurance, in the Illinois Marketplace about this tool. And of course, we welcome any feedback. You can email me at rkrughoff@checkbook.org

– By Robert Krughoff, President, Consumers' CHECKBOOK

Thursday, February 6, 2014

CBO on ACA: Devil is in the Details

On Tuesday, while driving between meetings, my favorite talk radio host shared shocking details from a new report – Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is going to result in a loss of 2 million jobs in the United States over the next 10 years. Well, I thought, it's going to be a long day.

Later I learned that this reporter was sharing details from the latest Budget and Economic Outlook Report from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is an independent agency tasked with providing fiscal analysis for Congress with the intent of informing the budget-making process. Periodically, they release these reports which provide a 10 year forecast demonstrating the economic impact of many policies. Since 2010, they have included analysis on the impact of the ACA.

Needless to say, I was anxious to dig into this nearly 200 page behemoth and figure out what was going on. What I read in this report turned out to be great news. The report does not say that the economy will lose 2 million jobs. It says that, by making it easier to access affordable, high quality health insurance, more than 2 million people can make the choice to leave their job and pursue their passions, spend time with their families, start businesses, or find better jobs.

For those of us that have been following and championing the ACA, this isn't actually new information. Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a report, entitled The Affordable Care Act: Improving Incentives for Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment, which estimated that we could see as many as 1.5 million entrepreneurial spirits leave their jobs to become their own boss in 2014 alone!

Both reports highlight the same important fact: Because of the promise made by the ACA, that we can all access good health care, people will have the freedom to do what they want without fear of medical emergency and financial ruin.

My father, sister, and brother-in-law are all self-employed. Even my grandmother owned a small craft shop for the better part of my 26 years. While they were all brave (and maybe a little stubborn) enough to pursue these passions before the ACA, it has not been without sacrifice. After my self-employed and uninsured father had emergency eye surgery in 1992, my family filed bankruptcy as a result of unpaid medical bills. If the ACA had been around then, things would have been much easier for us and my dad certainly would have avoided a lot of sleepless nights worrying about keeping his business or providing for my sister and I.

I was shocked when I heard that radio report, but – as always – the devil was in the details. Except the devil isn't really a devil at all. The bottom line is that the ACA presents a new opportunity: an opportunity for people like my dad, to become their own boss; for someone who has put in their years and saved their pennies to retire early; or for a new parent to work part time so they can spend more time watching their child learn and grow. The CBO report means that what happened in my family, and millions like us, doesn't have to happen anymore – and that is why I will continue to be a proud champion of the ACA.

– By Kathy Waligora

Kathy Waligora is the Manager of Health Reform Initiatives at EverThrive Illinois (formerly the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition).

See the 2013 ACA Self-Employment Infographic in PDF.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Does Your Cab Driver Have Health Insurance? Why Not Ask…

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on us all to remember that citizenship “demands a sense of common purpose… an obligation to serve our communities.” He went on to challenge us on how we exercise the “spirit of citizenship.” Today I started my own personal journey towards a “spirit of citizenship” by actually engaging with people I encounter everyday on health insurance. On this cold day, I started with cab drivers.

In my brief experience I learned cab drivers are really confused about the ACA. One gentleman told me “Obamacare” wasn’t for him because he had a job, and that it was only for poor or sick people. Another driver said that he tried to get insurance last year, but that he had high blood pressure so no insurance company would take him. Yet another driver disclosed that when his wife broke her wrist in July he flew her all the way back to Turkey for surgery because he had no health insurance. A quick discussion (five minutes tops –including stop lights) with all three of these drivers cleared up their misperceptions. All three were surprised to learn they would be eligible for either a subsidy in the Marketplace or, in the case of the driver originally from Turkey, Medicaid expansion or County Care.

Fortunately, I was able to tell them about a new initiative of Enroll Chicago that is targeting cab drivers. Every Monday and Wednesday the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has information booths with trained Get Covered Illinois navigators to help cab drivers enroll in health coverage.

Each day, more than 300 drivers come into the BACP office at 2350 W. Ogden Avenue to renew their licenses. They typically have to wait up to two hours to complete the license paperwork. Learning about health coverage options and enrolling in health insurance must be an excellent way to kill time – because in the first two days since program started, more than a hundred cab drivers talked to the navigators about health coverage. Think about how we could amplify that number if each of us were to talk to our cab drivers about health coverage!

Kudos to Enroll Chicago and the BACP for recognizing how they can exercise the “spirit of citizenship,”  making it easy for cab drivers to become informed and take action. I’m doing my part by sharing information about what Enroll Chicago and BACP are doing at 2350 W. Odgen.

How are you harnessing your “spirit of citizenship” when it comes to myth busting around the ACA? Let us know at info@illinoishealthmatters.org.
– By Barbara Otto, CEO, Health & Disability Advocates

If you have a media inquiry about this campaign, please contact Brian Richardson at the Chicago Department of Public health, Enroll Chicago 312-747-9805, brian.richardson@cityofchicago.org.

Photo credit: yooperann via photopin, cc license.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Consumer Information for January 1, 2014

As the start of coverage for Qualified Health Plans in the Marketplace approaches, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) anticipates that some of the newly insured individuals will have questions about how to access healthcare services. CMS has posted information on Marketplace.cms.gov to address questions that consumers may have with the January 1 start of coverage through their selected health plan.

Individuals who have insurance for the first time or have new plans beginning on January 1 are likely to have many questions related to coverage, premiums payments, co-payments, and other issues and may need to reach their individual insurance plan. Below is information for consumers on how to access their health plans as well as education factsheets explaining how health insurance works.

Payments of Premiums
The deadline to sign up for coverage to start January 1st was December 23rd.

We want to remind you that consumers need to pay their premium directly to the insurance company in order to have coverage by January 1, 2014. Consumers can pay when invoiced by the plan, call the issuer to make payment, or pay online if the plan accepts online payment. All consumers have until at least December 31 to pay for coverage effective January 1, although some insurance companies have extended this deadline. Consumers should check with their insurance company to find out when their first premium is due in order for coverage to be effective January 1. Consumers should also confirm with the issuer that their first month’s premium has been received and that enrollment is complete.

Please note that once a consumer selects a plan through the Marketplace, it may take the health plan 48-72 hours to receive and process the enrollment, so please encourage consumers to continue to periodically check back with their selected health plan. The insurance company will also send plan information and an insurance card to consumers who have completed enrollment including payment of the premium.



(Reposted from the Champions for Coverage December 27, 2014 email)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

As Federal Website Improves, GCI Promotes a “Culture of Coverage” Across Illinois

As the federal website continues to improve, Get Covered Illinois today kicked off its first statewide TV advertising campaign, designed to raise awareness of the new state of healthcare that becomes a reality in 2014, with the opportunity to purchase a health care plan through the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace.

“Now that the federal website has improved, we are shifting from educating consumers to the next phase of encouraging enrollment. We are urging thousands of uninsured residents in Illinois to get covered in this new state of healthcare that we are entering in 2014,” Jennifer Koehler, Executive Director of Get Covered Illinois said. “If you visited GetCoveredIllinois.gov before but didn’t select a plan, come back and try again. With the upgrades to the federal website that were recently put in place, the enrollment system is working much more smoothly. Now is the time to select a plan and get covered.”

In addition to the TV ad launch, Get Covered Illinois is ramping up its outreach efforts for an enrollment push leading up to Dec. 23, the first of a series of key enrollment dates under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). Consumers must enroll in a health plan by Dec. 23, and have paid a premium by Dec. 31, in order to have coverage on Jan. 1 through the plans offered on the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace, which is accessed through healthcare.gov. The full open enrollment period for the Marketplace runs through March 31, 2014.

The Get Covered Illinois advertising campaign is designed to educate those who need insurance on the essential benefits and financial assistance available through the Marketplace, and to drive enrollment for coverage starting as soon as Jan.1. The advertising includes TV, radio, digital and social media, with an emotional connection to reach broader, multicultural populations of Illinoisans to encourage them to take action.

The nearly $1-million TV ad buy includes the eight major-media markets in Illinois, and is targeted to reach Illinois’ uninsured population. The campaign features one 30-second ad that highlights the all-inclusive nature of the new state of healthcare across Illinois; and two 15-second spots: one that highlights the fact that insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and one that features a mom-to-be.

The TV advertising builds on the radio and digital banner advertising that began on Nov. 18 and is similarly targeted at Illinois’ uninsured population.

In addition to the statewide ad push, Get Covered Illinois and its more than 250 community partners are planning about 300 events to drive coverage around the state before Dec. 23. For planned enrollment events in your area, including those on Dec. 14, visit GetCoveredIllinois.gov and click on the events tab.

“We are encouraged that after two months of education and engagement by our more than 1,500 trained and certified Navigators assisting people to enroll across the state, there is steady feedback that residents are successfully buying Marketplace plans,” said Brian Gorman, Director of Outreach and Consumer Education for Get Covered Illinois. “We want to encourage people to sign up starting at our website, or work directly with a Navigator in your area, or call the help desk. All services are free.”

Get Covered Illinois is also further strengthening its Social Media presence to reach the uninsured through Facebook (www.facebook.com/coveredillinois) and Twitter (@CoveredIllinois). GCI recently launched a series of info graphics on social media that feature “30 Days, 30 Benefits.” The 30 pieces describe how the 10 Essential Health Benefits included in all Marketplace plans link directly to the real-life health needs people confront in their daily lives. GCI will also share testimonials of Illinois residents who have successfully enrolled in the Health Marketplace across social channels. These videos highlight what having health coverage will now mean for their lives.

The following is an operations, engagement and enrollment update from Get Covered Illinois >>

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released numbers for the first two months of enrollment under the ACA that indicate 67,936 applications on behalf of 124,252 individual people have been completed from Illinois and that 7,043 people have selected a private health care plan through the healthcare.gov website since Oct. 1.

Traffic on the Getcoveredillinois.gov website has remained steady, with 529,650 website visits since Oct. 1 and more than 245,800 users of the screening tool that leads users either to the federal website or the state’s new Medicaid eligibility site, ABE.illinois.gov (Application for Benefits Eligibility). The ABE site has received more than82,000 applications.

GCI encourages uninsured residents to:
  • Visit the website where you can find out if you qualify for a subsidy and compare health plans side-by-side (there is also a Spanish-language version of the website).
  • Sit with a specially trained Navigator at one of the hundreds of partner sites across the state; find a Navigator nearby through the website by entering a zip code. Bi-lingual Navigators are available.
  • Call the help desk at 866-311-1119. Operators are available to help you each day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Spanish-language assistance is available on the phone.
(Published on Friday, December 13 at Get Covered Illinois)