WASHINGTON — The first draft was as mind-numbing as a tax form. Tuesday the Obama administration unveiled simplified application forms for health insurance benefits coming next year under the federal health care overhaul.
The biggest change: a five-page short form that single people can fill out. That total includes a cover page with instructions, and an extra page to fill out if you want to designate someone to help you through the process.
But the application form for families still runs to 12 pages, although most households will not have to fill out each and every page.
The paperwork takes on added importance because Americans remain confused about what President Barack Obama's health care overhaul will mean for them. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Tuesday found that 4 in 10 are unaware it's the law of the land. Some think it's been repealed by Congress, but in fact, it's still on track.
At his news conference Tuesday, Obama hailed the simplified forms as an example of how his team listened to criticism from consumer groups and made a fix. The law's benefits will be available to all Americans, he emphasized, even if Republicans in Congress still insist on repeal, and many GOP governors won't help put it into place.
When the first draft of the application turned out to be a clunker, "immediately, everybody sat around the table and said, 'Well, this is too long, especially...in this age of the Internet,'" Obama recounted. "'People aren't going to have the patience to sit there for hours on end. Let's streamline this thing.'"
His administration is open to making improvements, Obama added: "Those kinds of refinements, we're going to be working on."
Consumers will start getting familiar with the new applications less than six months from now, on Oct. 1, when new insurance markets open for enrollment in every state. Most people with job-based benefits will not have to bother with the applications, only the uninsured.
Under the law, middle-class people who don't get coverage through their jobs will be able to purchase private insurance. Most will be able to get tax credits, based on their incomes, to make their premiums more affordable. Low-income uninsured people will be steered to government programs like Medicaid.
Benefits begin Jan. 1, and nearly 30 million uninsured Americans are eventually expected to get coverage.
While the first drafts of the applications were widely panned, the new forms were seen as an improvement. Still, consumers must provide a snapshot of their finances to see if they qualify for help. That potentially includes multiple sources of income, from alimony, to tips, to regular paychecks.
"Given the amount of information necessary to determine eligibility, it's hard to see how the forms could be any shorter," said Robert Laszewski, a former insurance executive turned industry consultant.
Activist Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, is an administration ally who had openly criticized the first draft of the forms, worrying that consumers would get discouraged just trying to fill them out. He called the changes "very positive."
"There has got to be a balance to between getting adequate (financial) information to make sure everybody gets the help they're entitled to under the law, while at the same time trying to keep the process consumer-friendly," said Pollack.
Although the new forms are shorter, the administration wasn't able to get rid of all the complexity. Individuals will have to gather tax returns, pay stubs and other financial records before filling out the application.
Administration officials expect most consumers to apply online through the new insurance marketplaces in each state. A single application process will serve to route consumers to either private plans or the Medicaid program. Identification, citizenship and immigration status, as well as income details, are supposed to be verified in close to real time through a federal "data hub" that will involve pinging Social Security, Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service.
Currently, applying for health insurance individually entails filling out a lengthy questionnaire about your health. Under Obama's overhaul, insurers will no longer be able to turn away the sick, or charge them more. The health care questions will disappear, but they'll be replaced by questions about your income. Consumers who underestimate their incomes could be in for an unwelcome surprise later on in the form of smaller tax refunds.
"Consumers will have a simple-easy to understand way to apply for health coverage later this year," said Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner, also overseeing the rollout of the health care law. She said the application is "significantly shorter than industry standards."
Among the sections eliminated in the new form was one that asked applicants if they also wanted to register to vote. Some congressional Republicans had criticized that, calling it politically motivated.