Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — A panel of government officials and insurance professionals speak to a crowd of residents gathered at the Natchez City Auditorium Thursday evening to hear an explanation regarding the Affordable Care Act.
Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — A panel of government officials and insurance professionals speak to a crowd of residents gathered at the Natchez City Auditorium Thursday evening to hear an explanation regarding the Affordable Care Act.

Panelists detail Affordable Care Act at public forum

Published 12:01am Friday, November 15, 2013

NATCHEZ — Approximately 150 people filed into the Natchez City Auditorium Thursday evening to have their questions about the Affordable Care Act answered by government officials and insurance professionals at a public forum.

Questions ranged in topic from the effect on Medicaid and Medicare patients to who needs to sign up and how to sign up for insurance on the federal health care exchange amid the technical glitches those visiting healthcare.gov have experienced.

The forum’s panelists were Roy Mitchell of Cover Mississippi, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Region IV Director Pamela Roshell, Don Boman of the Central Louisiana Area Health Education Center, Thomas Thompson of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Stacey Carter of Humana Mississippi and Kyle Godfrey of United Healthcare.

In response to an audience member’s disappointment with Mississippi’s decision to not expand Medicaid, Chaney said the decision not to expand Medicaid was left up to the governor and Legislature.

Chaney said if you make less than $11,200, you are not eligible to buy insurance through the federal marketplace.

“What I would suggest to you is to go ahead … and go to a rural health center, if you have one, or go ahead and visit someone here tonight because there maybe some opportunity for financial aid for you,” he said.

Residents who make between $11,200 and approximately $15,000 for a single individual should sign up through the federal marketplace, Chaney said.

“I would sign up for it, and I would do it tonight,” he said. “That’s the best way to get health coverage.”

The health insurance plans come in three levels: gold, silver and bronze.

“If you cannot afford the premiums for the silver plan, which is the plan that is going to be tried to be sold the most … buy a bronze plan,” he said. “It’s cheap.”

The bronze plan, Chaney said, pays 60 percent of coverage, with a 40-percent deductible.

“But under the act, your deductible is limited to … $6,000 a year, so you might be able to scrape that money up, if you had a major medical (event) happen to you,” he said.

With no coverage, a major medical procedure, such as a heart transplant, would cost a patient hundreds of thousands of dollars, Chaney said.

For those who fall in the gap, which Chaney said is approximately 70,000 Mississippians, the state is working on a program to help provide coverage.

“So you don’t have to go to the emergency room, if you make less than $11,000, we are working on a plan … where if you will put $10 a month up, we’ll match the $10 with donations, and we will send you to what we call an emergency medical care facility where you avoid the emergency room.”

The program benefits include up to four blood pressure checks a month and prescriptions through a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant.

Those currently receiving Medicare do not have to do anything under the Affordable Care Act, Roshell said.

President Obama said Thursday that Americans should be able to renew individual or group health insurance plans that don’t meet minimum coverage standards under the Affordable Care Act that he signed in 2010. In the past few weeks, companies have been canceling such policies and that has brought sharp criticism from opponents who say the law gives government too large a role in health insurance.

Chaney said at the forum that “very few, if any policies,” have been canceled in Mississippi, so residents should not see much of an impact.

Donelon explained the concept of community rating in response to a question about why people are required to purchase coverage they will never use, such as men with maternity care coverage.

In order to pay for the guaranteed benefits under the ACA, such as maternity care and caps on premium costs for older individuals who pay higher premiums, everyone’s plans will include those benefits to offset the costs of guaranteeing the benefits. Donelon said.

Godfrey fielded a question of whether a person who has employer-provided insurance should seek out a plan through the marketplace.

Godfrey said that the marketplace is really only for those who do not have insurance through an employer. If an employer offers affordable health insurance, which Godfrey said would be no greater than 9.5 percent of a person’s annual income, an employee should take it.

“If it’s offered to you and you don’t take it, you cannot get affordable care on the exchange,” he said, adding that those people would not be eligible for financial assistance.

The goal of the forum was to take politics out the discussion of the ACA, Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said, although Brown allowed one question related to the politics of ACA and how a repeal could affect those who purchase plans through the health care exchange.

Chaney and Donelon agreed that a repeal is likely not imminent in the immediate future.

Chaney added that even if the ACA is repealed, by that time most of the law will be engrained in the health insurance industry and will likely stay intact.

Humana offered one-on-one meetings with authorized agents at the forum in a bus that is touring the state.

Humana is offering coverage through the exchange in Adams County. For more information, visit humana.com/healthcareforyou or call 1-877-229-6285.

As of Nov. 1, more than 1 million people have applied for health insurance through the exchange, Roshell said. The problems with healthcare.gov should be fixed by the end of the month, she said.

“While we have had issues with healthcare.gov, please do not leave here being discouraged that you can’t use the system,” Roshell said.

Open enrollment lasts until March 31, and the law requires everyone to have insurance or face penalties.

A 24/7 toll-free call center is available at 1-800-318-2596.

Those seeking additional information about the ACA in Mississippi can  contact Cover Mississippi at 601-355-0025 or visit coverms.org or mhap.org.

The Central Louisiana Area Health Education Center should soon be providing trained navigators to Concordia Parish to help people sign up through the exchange, Boman said. More information about the CLAHEC can be found at lahealthcarenav.com.

Small business owners with general questions about what the ACA means for their business can call 800-706-7893 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.