SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a rocky start for the federal health insurance marketplace website, Utahns' questions are being answered by federal agents and state residents are getting help submitting applications from various local organizations.
"You can phone in to find out the answers to your questions, you can physically walk in and have someone help you. You don't have to bang your head against the website," said Robin Pratt, of Salt Lake City, who has successfully accessed the healthcare.gov.
Pratt used a workaround tactic discovered by a fellow Utahn to get through technical bugs plaguing the site and causing multiple errors to occur. Randall Bennett, of Ogden, found that he could breach glitches prohibiting access to the site by using the Google Chrome browser in incognito mode.
The seemingly simple fix, Pratt said, worked, and after two weeks of attempts, she was able to at least submit an application. Each day, she said, something else is fixed on the "incredibly complicated" website.
"It's already improved in the days I've been trying to do this," Pratt said. On Tuesday, though, Pratt was attempting a new application, as it appeared her initial one had "gotten stuck" in the process.
The Obama administration said it expects the marketplace website to run smoothly "for the vast majority of users" by the end of November. It has retained a team of experts to assess the site's performance and overhaul areas needing fixes.
Pratt is hopeful that she will be able to complete the process soon and that she will be insured by the Jan. 1 deadline, when Americans were originally required to be insured or pay a penalty. That deadline was extended Wednesday to allow for sign-ups through March 31 without a penalty.
To have a plan in place by January, individuals and families must enroll by Dec. 15.
There are 96 plans available to Utahns. And it is possible to view an estimated cost for those plans without submitting a personal application.
The competitively priced plans come in five categories — catastrophic, bronze, silver, gold and platinum — and are offered by six insurance carriers, some of which are local. The categories vary in premium cost and what part of the bill is paid by the member, ranging from 60 percent to 90 percent paid by the provider.
All plans must cover 10 essential benefits, including such things as doctor visits, prescription drugs, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, preventive care, mental health services, emergency care, laboratory costs, dental care for children and rehabilitative services.
In Utah, the average premium for the lowest-cost silver plan, which covers 70 percent of expected costs, is $239, and, for the lowest-cost bronze plan, it is $201.
Many people who apply for coverage in the marketplace might be eligible for lower costs on monthly premiums based on their household size and income. Those tax credits — for individuals and families with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four) — will work as an upfront discount, or subsidy.
With subsidies, as well as expanded Medicaid coverage in many states, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that six out of 10 currently uninsured Americans will be able to find coverage for $100 or less per month.
Policymakers in Utah have yet to make a decision on Medicaid expansion.
Low-priced "catastrophic" plans, which provide benefits only in the case of an emergency, are available to people under age 30, but tax credits cannot be applied, according to the federal government.
"Getting more Utahns covered is a journey, not a destination," Karen Crompton, president of the nonprofit child advocacy group, Voices for Utah Children, said during a marketplace kickoff event. She said there are options available on the marketplace for anyone whose place of employment doesn't offer insurance.
Since the federal health insurance marketplace pre-screens every applicant for Medicaid eligibility, many uninsured children are gaining access to health care through Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Plans. Voices for Utah Children is one of several community organizations that is working to educate and inform the public on the application process.
Crompton said there is "plenty of time" to apply, allowing the system to work through its glitches.
"As healthcare.gov continues to evolve over the coming months, it should become the go-to place for Utah families needing health insurance," she said.
There are four ways to apply for health coverage in the marketplace, including with a paper application, online at healthcare.gov, by calling 1-800-318-2596, or in person with certified application counselors, or trained navigators.
Utah's federally funded groups to help the public use the online marketplace to enroll for coverage include the Utah Health Policy Project, Utah AIDS Foundation and the National Council of Urban Indian Health. Each is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization already accustomed to assisting the public.
Salt Lake County has also set up a website to help answer the most frequently asked questions regarding the Affordable Care Act and direct people to various outlets for help. Another website, www.takecareutah.org, lists locations within each community where free assistance can be found.
Pratt has not only utilized the federal website to submit an application for eligibility, but she has spoken to several customer service representatives in the process. She said securing insurance for her family of four has been a long, but overall pleasant experience.
Pratt, 51, is unemployed but is actively seeking a new job. Her husband was laid off from a 30-year position in June and has yet to find replacement work as well. The couple have been paying $1,500 a month for a COBRA continuation plan since June, which, "even if you're employed, that's really hard," she said.
Already, though, Pratt has spied financial relief, as similar plans to what the family is used to are looking to be about half the cost on the federal marketplace.
"We like our doctors and we want to keep our doctors," she said.
Pratt is looking to insure herself, her husband and two adult children, who are ages 20 and 22. She's narrowed her choice down to the few plans that include the doctors her family has already been seeing.
She's also been told that if she finds a job and no longer needs the insurance she signs up for, things can easily be modified with a phone call.
"They have a plan for that, we just need to communicate it to them," Pratt said.
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