HHS Secretary Sebelius Boosts Affordable Care Act

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Updated: 8/10 9:12 pm

Nov. 8, 2013 -- Kathleen Sebelius, the beleaguered Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), tried to put a better face on the rocky rollout of the HealthCare.gov web site during two stops in Atlanta on Friday.

During her visit, Sebelius announced new rules that will boost mental-health insurance coverage. She also announced new federal grants for community health centers that are helping people sign up for health insurance. But it also was a chance for Sebelius to escape her problems in the nation's capital.

Greeting a crowd at a mental health symposium at the Carter Center, Sebelius said she was pleased to be in Georgia.

"Anywhere out of Washington these days is a good place to be," she said, 2 days after intense questioning from the Senate Finance Committee over the continuing problems with open enrollment. The sympathetic crowd responded with appreciative laughter.

Later, the secretary was surrounded by cameras and microphones as she met with hospital navigators, who were busy helping patients at Southside Medical Center sign up for new health insurance coverage through Georgia's federally run Marketplace.

Southside is one of 236 community health centers that will share $150 million in new grants to expand coverage to 1.26 million more patients nationally. It’s also a place where half the patients are uninsured.

The grants will help Southside support its staff of four navigators, the specially trained guides who help people through the process of applying for coverage.

"There are eight people on the computer right now. All of them are up and running. They're all in the process of applying," Sebelius said. "So it's getting better. It's not where we need it to be. But it is getting better. I was thrilled to go into the room and everybody was on the system," she added, laughing.

The massive computer system has been plagued with problems and delays since its highly anticipated rollout on Oct. 1. HHS has brought in a team of specialists and hired a private firm to oversee correcting the problems. They’ve promised to have it running more smoothly by the end of November.

'The Lesser-Told Story'

Sebelius also introduced reporters to two people who'd successfully applied for new coverage through the Marketplace.

Among them were Michael Lappin, 44, and his partner John West, 49, who own a local mortgage company. They said they signed up for a new Humana policy that will jointly save them more than $5,200 a year over what they pay for their current policy. And that's without any financial help from the federal government. Their incomes are too high to qualify for tax credits

They said that their deductible will drop from $1,500 to $1,000 a year, and they'll get better coverage with their new plan. "I don't think we're an exception,” Lappin said. “I think we're the lesser-told story."

"I think most people who are getting into it, who are patient with it and not expecting a miracle, are having a good experience," he added.

Sebelius acknowledged that the experience has not been a good one for many consumers.

"I have said repeatedly that the rollout has been very flawed, frustrating millions of Americans who want and need health insurance," she said. "I have apologized for those technical glitches."

She stressed that there were still 21 weeks left in the open enrollment period. She said the site should be functioning "much more optimally" by the end of November.

She also urged people to try other avenues to apply, including the Marketplace’s toll-free hotline and paper applications.

Many experts believe the long-term success of the new law depends on getting enough healthy, young adults to sign up for coverage. Younger adults in good health who use few medical services cost insurance companies less and help offset the expense of older and sicker patients. But those tech-savvy younger adults are less likely to sign up over the phone or mail in a form.

"Until that technical piece gets figured out, they're going to sit back and just watch. It's kind of reduced the confidence of the American public," said Ebrun Crowder, a navigator at Southside Medical Center.

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