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New Jersey's Bargain-Basement Obamacare Campaign

Non-profits, volunteers fill information gap

Monday, September 23, 2013

WNYC
(Terri Langford)

In New York, there's a slick ad campaign bombarding the airwaves, instructing the uninsured how to sign up for Obamacare beginning Oct. 1.

But In New Jersey, outreach is happening in a much less coordinated way, relying more on the networking ability of people like Enroll America's Tatiana Castrillon

"There aren't a lot of funds invested in educating the community,” Castrillon explains from West New York’s Bergenline Avenue, where she was out recently passing out fliers and explaining the process — in Spanish and English. “Some states are spending up to $100 a person. New Jersey is spending $3.”

Castrillon picked the sidewalk outside West New York’s United Pharmacy after a former Rutgers classmate — United Pharmacy co-owner Omar Miqbel — saw a posting from her on Facebook and invited her to his storefront.

Some 40 percent of Miqbel’s customers are either uninsured or underinsured.

"Sometimes they do qualify for health benefits from their employer, but the premiums are so expensive they opt out of because they just can’t afford the coverage,” Miqbel said. “So they’ll pay out of pocket and just hope they don’t sick, I guess.”

For those with Internet access, studying the new health insurance options and signing up can be done easily on the Internet, at the website healthcare.gov.

But for many health care advocates like Castrillon, they’ll be heading to street corners and public venues like libraries or holding community events to reach those unable to sign up quickly.

That’s because Gov. Chris Christie – like many Republican governors – opted not to run his own states’ Affordable Care Act insurance enrollment process. States that relinquished the insurance sign-up role to the federal government received fewer dollars for public outreach.

New Jersey received about $2 million in federal tax dollars to pay for about two dozen navigators, compared to $27 million received by New York, which is running its own insurance enrollment online marketplace.

Even though New Jersey lost out on promotion funding from the federal government, there is another pot of money that Christie could tap, said  health care advocate Maura Collingsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action, which is another non-profit group trying to raise New Jerseyans’ awareness about Obamacare.

New Jersey received $7.6 million from the federal government when it was considering whether to run its own exchange. Only a fraction of it was used.

“He just needs to develop a plan,” Collingsgru said. “We’d be happy to help him do that.”

Getting the word out to enough uninsured people in New Jersey about the health care options is critical, said Joel Cantor, director of Rutgers University’s Center for State Health Policy.

“If the enrollment is disproportionately older and sicker, in other words likely to have higher expenses, that will drive premiums up,” he said.

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