FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - After months of build-up, Florida residents can start shopping for health insurance on government-run online marketplaces Tuesday as the key component of the Affordable Care Act goes live.
The federal government is facing two major hurdles: fighting the confusion and misinformation surrounding the plan referred to as "Obamacare" and making sure the new technology systems work seamlessly. Federal health officials have acknowledged there will be glitches like any new program.
It's also unclear whether millions will inundate the federal website and call center Tuesday or whether it will be a trickle. Coverage doesn't begin until January, and the enrollment period ends in March.
The liberal advocacy group Families USA estimates that roughly half of Florida's 3.5 million uninsured residents will be eligible for federal subsidies to help them purchase insurance. But the amount will vary widely depending on income, location, the plan, family size, age, and even tobacco use. Florida residents can choose from 102 plans, the second highest of any state.
"Nobody knows what Obamacare is. One person says it's going to be good, another person says it's going to be bad," said Alex Gomez, a Miami father of four, who pays more than $500 a month for a high-deductible family insurance plan. He didn't know he is likely eligible for a government subsidy through the new marketplace. Residents making less than roughly $46,000 a year and a four-person family with an income of less than $94,000 a year may receive vouchers to help offset premium costs.
"That's good news for me," said the 38-year-old self-employed painting contractor. The family recently couldn't afford health coverage for three years and Gomez said he constantly worried something bad would happen.
He plans to go to healthcare.gov and shop around on his own time. The exchanges are meant to have the feel of an online travel website, where consumers can compare prices and benefits of different plans.
But in a potentially significant delay, the administration told Hispanic groups last week that the Spanish-language version of the website will not be ready to handle online enrollments for a few weeks. In Florida, nearly 580,000 Hispanics are eligible for health coverage through the marketplace.
"I'm concerned about the delay knowing there was a large Latino community that needed it. I don't think that was very well planned," said Maria Pinzon, executive director of the Hispanic Services Council in Tampa.
But she stressed that one-on-one outreach will be more powerful than the government website. Her organization is partnering with several local churches.
Supporters of the law have criticized Republican Gov. Rick Scott, saying his concerns over consumers' personal information are a scare tactic to hinder enrollment. Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have been reluctant to implement portions of the federal health reform. State officials recently banned counselors from entering county health departments to help sign people up for health insurance.
Broward and Pinellas counties fought back and welcomed the counselors, also known as navigators, at county health departments, arguing the state leases the buildings from the county.
The state has only approved 34 of 96 navigator licenses so far. The counselors are not legally allowed to conduct outreach without a license, which means a majority won't be able to do their job on launch day. Several states are spending millions on marketing campaigns and partnering with pro-sports teams, but Florida isn't spending any of its own money, making navigators even more important in the Sunshine State.
When asked whether there were enough counselors to help enroll people, Jerson Dulis, of Broward Community & Family Health Centers Inc., said, "We don't know yet...we do anticipate it to get very busy."
Insurance plans offered through the exchange have undergone a major upgrade. As of Jan. 1, insurers can no longer turn away people with pre-existing medical conditions, and they will be limited in what they can charge to older policy holders. Consumers' financial exposure will be capped. Insurers are also required to offer beefed up benefits under the plans, so while prices may increase, consumers will be getting an upgraded product. Some Florida insurers currently offer fairly skimpy benefit plans at cheap rates for catastrophic coverage, but those types of plans will no longer be allowed under the federal health law unless they meet the basic benefits requirement.
Anyone making below the poverty line won't be eligible for subsidies through the online marketplace. Federal health officials anticipate roughly 1 million Floridians will fall into a gap where they can't get health insurance because the state rejected Medicaid expansion.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)