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HHS Secretary Sebelius

Sebelius hopeful 7 million enrollees a 'realistic target'

By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: June 24, 2013 - 3:00 pm ET

(Story updated at 3 p.m. ET.)

With about 100 days left before the new health insurance marketplaces are scheduled to begin enrolling members, the Obama administration hopes to persuade 7 million Americans to sign up for coverage next year.

Surrounded by senior administration health officials, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Monday discussed the launch of her department's health reform outreach campaign and said HHS will work to develop new ways to attract young, healthy individuals into the health insurance marketplaces.

“We're hopeful that 7 million is a realistic target and that we're going to be driving our efforts toward that kind of enrollment effort,” Sebelius said, referring to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's earlier estimates for the first year of open enrollment, which will begin in October and last through March 2014. “And it's both about numbers and also hopefully getting a balanced risk pool.”

That will require getting creative to reach those young, healthy adults who will be eligible but as a group have been resistant to buying health coverage.

One strategy, Sebelius said, will to appeal to the nation's mothers to lean on their sons and daughters. The department will also ramp up its social-networking efforts, and has already reached out to professional sports organizations to spread the word.

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“We're having active discussions right now with a variety of sports affiliates, both in terms of what will end up being paid advertising but hopefully some partnership efforts,” Sebelius said. “The NFL, for instance—in the conversations that I've had—has been very actively and enthusiastically engaged because they see health promotion as one of the things that they think is good for them and good for the country.”

The administration's official enrollment push comes a week after the not-for-profit coalition Enroll America kicked off its campaign in earnest. Health systems and insurers, meanwhile, are finding their own ways to educate people about new coverage options.

HHS has revamped as a consumer site from a policy and stakeholder site, one official explained. With more than 150 pages of new information, the website is intended to educate consumers about the health insurance exchanges and offer information that consumers need to think about before they can enroll come Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, more than 9,000 customer-service representatives will field calls and offer assistance through a new toll-free number: 800.318.2596. As long as individuals enroll by the March deadline, they will be not be assessed a penalty for not having insurance for 2014. A separate number—855-889-4325—will be available for hearing-impaired callers.

HHS will continue its effort to raise awareness and prepare consumers for enrollment throughout the summer. Next month, the department is expected to award about $150 million to community health centers for outreach and enrollment and about $54 million in grants for Navigators in August.

By October, consumers should be able to apply and shop among plans that will include price information. Also, CMS regional representatives will host demonstrations about the website and call-in number similar to the ones in Florida later this week, officials noted. As these efforts continue, Sebelius said, that the most daunting challenge ahead is that there are still people who are unaware or misinformed about what's going to change in the law and have misinformation about it.

Another significant hurdle, she said, is that about half of the states do not plan to expand their Medicaid programs.

“We are very concerned that in some states there will be people who are not at 100% of poverty, so they will not—absent Medicaid expansion—qualify for any financial assistance for health insurance,” Sebelius said. “And that message is going to be complicated in states where there are a lot of people eager for coverage and yet if the governor and legislature choose not to expand Medicaid, there will be a huge gap between what they can afford and what is available.”

One option will be to refer those individuals to seek care at community health centers, according to an HHS official.

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond

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