Health-care law challenge: raising public awareness

Sarah Kliff / The Washington Post /

Published Nov 21, 2012 at 04:00AM

After surviving a Supreme Court decision and a presidential election, the Obama administration’s health-care law faces another challenge: a public largely unaware of major changes that will roll out in the coming months.

States are rushing to decide whether to build their own health exchanges and the administration is readying final regulations, but a growing body of research suggests that most low-income Americans who will become eligible for subsidized insurance have no idea what’s coming.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that people who will be affected don’t realize the urgency because the subsidies won’t begin for another year. But policy decisions are being made now that will affect tens of millions of Americans, and the lack of public awareness could jeopardize a system that depends on having many people involved.

Low enrollment could lead to higher premiums, health policy experts say. Hospitals worry that, without widespread participation, they will continue getting stuck with patients’ unpaid medical bills. And advocates say the major purpose of the Affordable Care Act — extending health insurance to more Americans — will go unmet if large numbers of vulnerable people don’t take advantage of it.

But because “Obamacare” has been so controversial, and its fate caught up in the presidential campaign, there has been little public discussion about the specifics of putting it into action. States such as Texas and Florida, where opposition to the legislation was strong, have been slow to embrace the law and critics have been loath to promote it. Initial White House efforts at outreach caused congressional Republicans to accuse the administration of using taxpayer money for political gain.

In mid-November, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., subpoenaed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, demanding information about how her agency has used federal money to promote the Affordable Care Act. The administration is preparing a final budget for an outreach program focused on the opening of the exchanges in October.

“People hear it’s going to come in 2014, which makes it not very relevant to their lives,” said Tevi Troy, a top Health and Human Services official under President George W. Bush. “If you don’t have an understanding of the law, that’s when you’re going to have real take-up problems.”

Seventy-eight percent of the uninsured Americans who are likely to qualify for subsidies were unfamiliar with the new coverage options in a survey by Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners. That survey, sponsored by the nonprofit Enroll America, also found that 83 percent of those likely to qualify for the expansion of Medicaid, which is expected to cover 12 million Americans, were unaware of the option.

In separate October polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41 percent of voters described themselves as “confused” about the health-care law.

Even in Maryland, one of the states that has most aggressively implemented the Affordable Care Act, awareness is low. A survey released Monday found that 30 percent of likely Maryland voters describe themselves as knowing “a lot” about the coming changes.

“Most Maryland voters don’t fully understand the law,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president of the Horizon Foundation, the nonprofit based in Howard County that sponsored the study. “The people who stand to benefit the most know the least about it.”

Even as Congress was finishing the debate that led to the law, a coalition of health-care advocates formed to help promote it. Led by Families USA co-founder Ron Pollack, the group started Enroll America, a nonprofit largely funded by health-care industry and philanthropy groups.

In the coming months, the group will begin an advertising campaign meant to encourage Americans to sign up for the health-care law’s subsidized insurance coverage. Still in its planning stages, it is likely to start in the summer or fall of 2013, just before the state-based insurance marketplaces open for enrollment.

The still-unnamed campaign is likely to put more intensive resources toward a handful of key states. Those could include Florida and Texas, which have a combined 10 million uninsured residents, and have made little effort to do such outreach.

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