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WV sees smooth launch of health care exchange on first day

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MORGANTOWN, WV (AP) -

By VICKI SMITH,

Associated Press

An advocacy group that's worked to spread the word about Tuesday's rollout of a health insurance marketplace as part of the Affordable Care Act says West Virginia has passed up millions of dollars in federal advertising money that could have helped.

In July, the Associated Press found West Virginia was spending more per capita than any other state to promote awareness of the law and the new health care exchanges, with $17.1 million. That amounts to $9.23 per resident and was 11th among the states in total spending.

But Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said word has yet to reach countless working West Virginians who may not read newspapers or otherwise have heard the details of the health care overhaul often called "Obamacare." The people who will benefit most, he said, remain least likely to know about it.

To collect millions in public-education grants, "all we had to do was write a proposal and send it in," Bryant said. "But the state passed altogether."

Hallie Mason, policy director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said it would have been premature to unleash a barrage of TV and radio ads before the exchange officially launched. If consumers had seen them and wanted to enroll or ask questions, she said, no one would have been available to help them.

"Today is the day," she said. "We felt we needed to figure out across the state where the higher demand was."

Mason said state officials will monitor the launch in the coming weeks and assess where there are shortfalls in communication before requesting any more resources.

The money isn't going away, but "we need to be careful stewards," she said. "We've got to have a good plan."

West Virginians who have no health insurance can now sign up for coverage that will kick in Jan. 1, 2014. Tax credits based on income, age, location, family size, tobacco use and other factors can help offset the price of the premiums.

On average, the Obama administration says premiums for a midrange benchmark plan will cost $331 per person. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that six in 10 people will be able to find at least some level of coverage for $100 or less per month, after tax credits.

Navigators, independent counselors paid under federal grants, will help people determine which plan best suits their needs. Assistance is also available at hospitals and other health care facilities, at county DHHR offices, and at a variety of private and nonprofit organizations.

Some 45,000 West Virginians have signed up for automatic enrollment in Medicaid in the past two weeks, and DHHR Assistant Secretary Jeremiah Samples said that's easing the pressure on the new online marketplace. As of late Tuesday afternoon, no major technical problems had been reported anywhere in the state.

The agency recently sent 118,000 letters informing families they automatically qualify under new guidelines the state approved to prepare for implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The strong response so far is alleviating pressure on DHHR offices and on the online system, Samples said.

The lack of problems could also mean that many people are going straight to the federal system or that they still don't know about the program. Either way, Samples said it will take some time to assemble a snapshot of the first week and get a sense of how many people have enrolled.

Some 245,000 West Virginians are currently uninsured, by federal estimates. Under the Affordable Care Act, no one can be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition.

Perry said his group has trained more than 850 people across the state in July and August, giving them exhaustive 4 1/2-hour primers on the new law in hopes of building what he calls a ground game. It's also helped fund outreach efforts by 31 nonprofit groups.

"But it would have been great to have this ground game coupled with an air war — TV and radio spots," he said. Instead, "West Virginia is kind of fighting this battle with one arm tied behind its back."

Some private groups will run spots on their own, including the only seller in West Virginia's health care exchange, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

But Perry said smaller ad budgets mean smaller audiences, and because it's a more fractured approach, "it doesn't have an overarching theme, so it's not going to be effective."

It's not too late to seek federal grants, Perry added. "What they need is the political will to implement Obamacare."

To learn more about the exchange, call 1-800-318-2596 or visit http://bewv.wvinsurance.gov/ 

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