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updated: 9/30/2013 5:02 AM

Affordable Care Act debut in suburbs gets mixed reaction

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  • Margie Tarpey, Enroll DuPage program coordinator, left, listens to Jane Macdonald, director of client engagement, as she speaks with a handful of volunteers in training. The meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville occurred to help implement the Affordable Care Act in DuPage County.

       Margie Tarpey, Enroll DuPage program coordinator, left, listens to Jane Macdonald, director of client engagement, as she speaks with a handful of volunteers in training. The meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville occurred to help implement the Affordable Care Act in DuPage County.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Margie Tarpey, Enroll DuPage program coordinator, speaks with volunteers in training to help implement the Affordable Care Act during a meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville.

       Margie Tarpey, Enroll DuPage program coordinator, speaks with volunteers in training to help implement the Affordable Care Act during a meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jane MacDonald, director of client engagement, speaks with a group of volunteers in training to help implement the Affordable Care Act during a meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville.

       Jane MacDonald, director of client engagement, speaks with a group of volunteers in training to help implement the Affordable Care Act during a meeting at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

When she got divorced two years ago, Megan Cochran of Hoffman Estates was removed from her husband's health insurance plan.

She applied for Medicaid, but her $33,000-a-year income -- consisting of child support and a $700 monthly salary as a part-time retail cashier -- made her ineligible. She shopped for private insurance, but it was too expensive.

So the 34-year-old mother of two didn't have health insurance when she was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder last year or when she suffered a pulmonary embolism in June. She racked up $100,000 in medical bills, she said, for which collectors now hound her. On top of that, she's saddled with $250 a month for must-have medications.

As far as Cochran's concerned, Tuesday's launch of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, can't come soon enough.

"As soon as they open enrollment at the health facility I go to, I'm signing up," Cochran said. "I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for this."

As suburban consumers try to figure out the complex Affordable Care Act, some vent anger about its possible implications for businesses and for insurance prices. Others, like Cochran, are relieved to finally have a health insurance option.

Yet, while some might be ready to sign up, many suburban organizations aren't ready for them.

Late-arriving federal grant money delayed the training process for suburban "navigators," "assisters" and "in-person counselors," leaving suburban groups scrambling to get staffers properly educated and certified to guide people through the new health insurance exchanges that open Tuesday.

A week away from the launch, McHenry County was still in the process of hiring people to get trained.

"Will we be ready Oct. 1? It's a question mark," said Jane MacDonald, director of client engagement at Loaves & Fishes in Naperville, one of several DuPage County organizations tapped to help low-income residents with the insurance signup process.

While Loaves & Fishes began planning in June, MacDonald said the agency didn't get the online passcode to begin the federal training program until Sept. 17, two weeks before the ACA launch. Their volunteers immediately started the online and in-person training sessions, but have yet to take tests, submit to background checks and complete applications for certification. That's a lot to learn and do in a short time for the organization's one paid and 12 volunteer assisters.

"It's a challenge. It's quite a bit to absorb in a short amount of time, but everyone is working really hard," MacDonald said. "We're kind of all looking at each other and wondering if we'll be able to be ready. We will be as ready as anybody will be, or more so."

Cook County is also scrambling, but its Medicaid enrollment program has been operating full-steam ahead.

Cook County was one of only a few counties nationwide to get a waiver to start Medicaid enrollment early and has already enrolled more than 103,000 residents without health insurance into its new program, CountyCare. It expects to exceed its goal of 150,000 people by the end of the year. One county official described it as "a bridge to Obamacare."

"That means people are getting access to health care. It's very good news from the perspective of the patient," said Dr. Ram Raju, chief executive officer of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. "People are hungry for this health care. If an opportunity (to have) health care comes in, they say, 'Let me join it.'"

Information about Illinois health insurance exchanges and Medicaid plans will be available Tuesday on www.getcoveredillinois.gov, a website that only went online Saturday. However, state officials stress that whether people sign up on Oct. 1 or Dec. 31, coverage will not begin until Jan. 1, 2014. They encouraged people to take the time to learn about the plans and make educated choices.

Small marketing business owner Dianna Kingery, 52, of Lake Zurich plans to carefully scrutinize the plans for coverage and deductible details as she's looking for relief for her steadily rising private health insurance premiums. Even though she's healthy and has no pre-existing conditions, she pays a $450 bimonthly premium that has high deductibles and no dental or vision coverage.

Kingery is not a fan of Obamacare and is cautious about hidden costs in the government-run plans. She also worries about the longevity and dependability of the premiums and tax credits.

"There are a lot of what-ifs," she said. "I'm going to be reading the fine print carefully, making sure I'm comparing apples to apples. Boy, I hope people go into this with eyes open. I sure have my eyes open."

Oak Brook trustee and longtime emergency room doctor Mark Moy had his eyes opened by a recent hospital stay, and now he's convinced people should consider taking advantage of the exchanges and get health insurance.

Despite working in hospitals since 1981, Moy was admitted for the first time last month with stomach pains. Though in the hospital less than 24 hours, Moy went through several tests and was sent home with a $23,000 bill.

Since he never sees his patients' hospital bills, the tab was a shock.

Moy's insurance company, like many large insurers, has a deal with the hospital that cut his bill down to about $8,000, and Moy paid a couple hundred dollars as his share.

Without insurance, though, he would have been billed the whole $23,000.

"That can wipe out anybody," he said. "We'll see, but this (Affordable Care Act) might address this one inequity."

• Daily Herald Political Editor Mike Riopell and Staff Writer Robert Sanchez contributed to this story.

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