JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As federal health officials work around the clock to fix technology glitches plaguing the website where citizens can obtain health insurance under the new federal law, many Floridians still have little understanding of how the law works.
And that includes small businesses owners, like Ann Freeman, who manages more than 100 employees of River City Security Services. She says she'd like tell her employees what's going to happen over the next year, but the information to make a decision just isn't there yet.
"It's probably the most difficult challenge I've had as a business owner," Freeman said. "We've had to shift a lot of that attention and time and energy towards figuring out how we're going to deal with this mandate."
Tax preparer Denise Foley, who is holding free seminars on the new law at Liberty Tax Service on Blanding Boulevard, says she has learned a lot in the last month.
"Studying, researching and a lot of documents, a lot of websites, everything I can get my hands on," Foley said. "I'm finding that all the answers are just not out there yet."
That's where people like Tatiana Ramirez come in. She is a dentist, but also a full time heath care navigator who was just licensed to will start helping people enroll next week.
Ramirez knows it will be a challenge because lots of people have had trouble signing up online.
"I don't want them to be discouraged because of the slow results," Ramirez said. "I believe that everything is going to improve."
Trained counselors are spending the bulk of their time educating people about what the Affordable Care Act is, not signing them up for insurance.
"A lot of people are going to be quite confused and think they can't afford it and aren't going to be eligible," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard.
He also worries that people aren't getting the facts in Republican-run states like Florida because state officials aren't invested in outreach.
"The worrisome thing for the (Obama) administration is that those who would be most likely to go through the registration are, of course, the people with the most serious illness. ... For them, figuring out how to get on is really essential to their lives. But the confusion is likely to affect people who don't feel an immediate need to have health insurance," Blendon said.
In other words, the young healthy adults. The success of the law depends on their participation as insurers need enough of them to sign up for coverage to balance out the cost of caring for older, sicker adults.
Even during those times when the website, healthcare.gov, was working smoothly, many people didn't sign up on the spot. Jodi Ray, who oversees the navigators for the University of South Florida, says it's more than a one-visit process. Most consumers want to compare information on various plans at home and make a thoughtful decision before they enroll.
"Although people can make decisions on the fly and some are comfortable with that, it's not really that kind of process," she said.
The federal government plans to release monthly enrollment figures, likely starting in November. Ray said she suspects December's enrollment figures will be even higher as outreach efforts start paying off and consumers have time to understand the law. Federal health officials estimate that 7 million people would gain coverage in the first year through the markets, including 477,000 in Florida, where roughly 3.5 million lack health insurance.
Many are advising people to wait until the website's kinks are worked out and remind them they have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage that begins Jan. 1. The enrollment period lasts through the end of March.
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