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So Far, Insurance ‘Bridge’ Interests Fewer Than Expected

From The Post & Courier:

By Renee Dudley
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Just more than 100 South Carolinians are enrolled in the federally-run insurance plan for adults with so-called “pre-existing” medical conditions, according to the latest data.

Some advocates for the uninsured said last week that figure is far below their expectations.

“Clearly there are more than 100 people who want to get in there,” said Sue Berkowitz of the South Carolina Legal Justice Center, a Columbia group that assists low-income residents.

The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, which took effect in the Palmetto State on Aug. 1, offers comprehensive health insurance to adults who were denied coverage by private insurers because they had conditions such as diabetes, asthma, cancer or AIDS.

The federal government has touted the plan, which is meant to serve as a “bridge” to cover people with pre-existing conditions until 2014, when insurers will be prohibited from denying coverage because of health status.

Some plans, like those offering basic coverage for children under the age of 19, cost as little as $163 a month. Others, including one plan for people over the age of 55, have monthly premiums stretching up to about $700.

“For a lot of people, $500 or $600 a month is an incredible amount of money,” Berkowitz said. “It’s the difference between keeping the lights on or paying rent. You’re not going to go homeless to be able to pay for health insurance.”

Columbia-based health care consultant Lynn Bailey agreed, saying people also are deterred by bureaucratic barriers, such as obtaining paperwork proving they already have been denied coverage.

Berkowitz and Bailey cited other problems beyond costs.

In some cases, people who can afford the plans do not know they are available, they said.

Berkowitz called for a website where users could compare all health insurance plans available in the state. An estimated 800,000 South Carolinians have no health insurance, she said.

“When they come into the system, the information needs to be presented in a way that is easy for people to understand,” she said. “So far, there’s been a lack of outreach and information.”

In a conference call with reporters last week, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration is considering ways to increase participation in the “high-risk” insurance program, including by lowering monthly premiums.

The federal government already is subsidizing the plans through the Affordable Care Act to the tune of $5 billion nationally over four years. About $74 million of that was set aside for South Carolina.

Just more than 8,000 people were enrolled in the high-risk plans nationally through November, the most recent federal data available. South Carolina, which had enrolled 104 people through November, had enrolled more residents than other states with similar populations.