ACA is here, but so is new fear thanks to shutdown
Kris Martinez has eagerly awaited the rollout of the Affordable Care Act since it became law.
As of noon Wednesday, the 33-year-old Salt Lake City resident had yet to be able to log on to compare insurance plans, but the computer glitch caused when millions overloaded the federal health exchange website was not what was frustrating him.
It was the showdown in Washington and continued talk from some Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, of repealing, defunding or delaying the health care law.
"I'll be frustrated if that happens," Martinez said. "I just don't think this is the way to run a country."
Martinez who works for a small company that doesn't provide health insurance and, because of a pre-existing condition, has to pay an exorbitant amount for coverage plans to ignore the political fight and see if there is a less-expensive option under the Affordable Care Act.
Count Martinez among the tens of thousands of Utahns and millions of Americans hungering for health insurance. For them, this issue isn't politics it's personal.
"It is still something I need to do for me, whether the government is shut down or not," Martinez said. " ... If it gets defunded, it's just more of the same."
Some Utahns are taking a wait-and-see approach as the federal government shutdown slogs on because they are confused about what effect it might have on the health care law.
The short answer: none.
The program has passed Congress, been signed into law, survived a national election, been upheld by the country's highest court and is now in place. In fact, the ACA is largely untouched by the shutdown because the law is self-funded through different taxes and budget carve-outs, instead of a direct appropriation. In other words, it's not subject to budget debates.
Federal grants to help states enact the law adopt and enforce new insurance regulations and Medicaid eligibility rules were allocated long ago.
"The grant money is there and we are drawing on it," said Jason Stevenson, a spokesman for the Utah Health Policy Project, which directs a network of navigators charged with helping consumers shop the federal health insurance marketplace, or exchange.
The money could run out, he said, but not until August.
That's true, too, of funding for health safety-net programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had to furlough 40,512 employees, or about 52 percent of its workforce, the agency announced in its contingency plan. Enough staffers were exempted from the shutdown, though, to keep the exchange going along with other "essential" services.
An unlikely possibility is that the shutdown plods on so long the Internal Revenue Service stops collecting taxes and the money funding the ACA runs out.
Christina Postolowski, a senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Young Invincibles, which is working to enroll the more than 19 million young adults ages 18 to 34 across the U.S., said field workers reported strong interest in the health care marketplaces.
Fear about defunding "isn't a concern we have been hearing a lot about," she said. "We're hearing more from people who are uninsured or have a pre-existing condition ... and are eager to find out how they can get better coverage."
The enrollment window covers six months, she said, so people have time to look at options and see what Congress does.
But there is still plenty of confusion.
Sandy resident Angie Jackson plans to hold off on signing up for coverage while she researches the ACA and Congress sorts out its disagreements.
Jackson, 51, was laid off in June from a job she had for eight years. She landed a new position at the end of July, but won't qualify for medical coverage until February. She planned to look at health care plans to bridge the gap but says she doesn't "want to sign up for something and find out later on down the road that is not what I signed up for. I'm going to wait and watch."
Amber Wood, 32 and the mother of two young daughters, also plans to wait. While her husband has health insurance through his job, premiums are too high to cover them all. Wood works as an independent contractor with several businesses, so she doesn't have health coverage through an employer.
"I've got to do something," Wood said. "Let's say I sign up tomorrow and get insurance. Is what I sign up for even going to be valid or am I going to have to go through the whole process again in a couple weeks or months? I'm a little at a loss right now."
Angie Welling blames Lee, Utah's junior senator, for helping to create a lot of the confusion.
A former spokeswoman for Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert who now works in public relations, Welling scolded Lee for his strong-arm tactics to defund the ACA.
In a letter published Tuesday on the blog utahÂpolicy.com, she accused Lee and "his ilk" of acting like "schoolyard bullies" with their "Stop Obamacare at All Costs mantra." Real people are being hurt, Welling said, including her cancer-survivor mother, Beckie Clarkson.
Welling said in an interview that her mom has been uninsured off and on during the past 16 years as a result of that cancer, considered a pre-existing condition. Her mother is not seeking a handout just the same access everyone else has "without having to go through a 19-page questionnaire about her health history."
"Today, God willing, Mom will sign up for health insurance on the federal health exchange. She will finally have coverage. That is, if you and your group of obstructionist legislators don't ultimately get your way," Welling wrote. "Then the only gagging she'll experience will be as she watches the childish behavior coming out of Washington, D.C."
For his part, Lee contends the ACA "is a failure that will inevitably hurt businesses, American families and the economy."
Brian Phillips, the first-term senator's communications director, said he was aware of Welling's letter and empathized with her mother's plight.
But, he said, for "every person like that there are others who are losing their jobs and losing their insurance" because of the ACA and its impact on businesses the basis for Lee's opposition.
"It breaks your heart to see she's had those kinds of issues and those kinds of problems," Phillips said. "But we talk to people every day who are screaming and yelling because they are losing their health insurance."
Home Depot, he said, is taking away health insurance for 20,000 part-time workers.
"We are getting hundreds of calls a day from people who feel the new policy is going to make the health care system much worse," Phillips said.
Town Hall set
On Oct. 9 at 7 p.m., The Salt Lake Tribune and KCPW will co-sponsor an Affordable Care Act town-hall meeting at Salt Lake City Main Library's auditorium, 210 E. 400 South. Reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate a discussion with a panel of experts, who also will answer questions.