Expect ‘kinks’ in Obamacare rollout

On Tuesday, the federal government opens enrollment for health insurance plans at www.healthcare.gov.

Summerville resident Bob Ielfield had some questions about Obamacare last week, so he decided to call Gov. Nikki Haley’s office.

“It’s the first place I thought of calling for information,” he said.

It’s not that Ielfield needed help signing up for insurance. He’s 86 years old and has carried a Medicare card for decades.

Instead, Ielfield had questions about the Affordable Care Act’s navigator program. Navigators recently have been hired in every state with federal grants to help residents figure out, or navigate, their options under the new law. Ielfield didn’t know where to find one of these navigators in Dorchester County.

It turns out the governor’s office didn’t know either.

“I talked to three different people,” he said.

Ielfield said the third person he spoke to gave him a phone number for the S.C. Department of Insurance. He talked to three more people at that agency before he was eventually given a 1-800 number to reach the federal government. He called that number and spent 30 minutes talking to someone in a federal call center in San Antonio.

From start to finish, it took him an hour and a half to get any useful information.

“They had not been given any information about what to tell people,” he said.

Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said Ielfield called the front desk and was transferred to constituent services, like all similar phone calls of that nature.

But Ielfield isn’t the only one calling state agencies with questions about this complicated and controversial law.

The federal government is opening health insurance enrollment Tuesday through its brand-new health insurance marketplace, and there are still many unknowns.

How many people will sign up for insurance? Is the infrastructure for this federal marketplace capable of handling all these new customers? Will the law ultimately help reduce long-term health-care costs?

“I really do believe that it all working is very unlikely,” said John Supra, deputy director of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, speaking after a forum on the Affordable Care Act in Charleston last month.

But perfection shouldn’t necessarily be expected, said Anton Gunn, director of external affairs in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We know there will be kinks and glitches along the way,” said Gunn, a former South Carolina legislator.

He compared the insurance marketplace launch to Apple’s recent roll-out of the new iPhone operating system.

That new system drains the phone’s battery more quickly than the old system, some iPhone owners have complained.

“That’s a glitch that Apple was not prepared for,” Gunn said. “We will continue to make changes and improvements as necessary, but we are excited about the fact that millions of Americans will have the opportunity to shop for affordable coverage.”

Anticipating that the public will have questions about the law and may not know where to turn for answers, some state agencies have been preparing to handle increased call volume.

The state Medicaid agency developed a list of frequently asked questions sourced through the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid about the Affordable Care Act that employees in the Health Reform Contact Center can reference, almost like a script, to provide consistent, accurate information.

The governor’s office confirmed that all state agencies have been provided a call referral document to help better facilitate questions about the law.

The Medicaid agency specifically also will staff its call center on Saturdays starting in October, too. The call center staff recently doubled in size, and a Medicaid spokeswoman said the agency will add up to 10 more people to answer phone calls by Dec. 1.

Department of Insurance Director Ray Farmer said his agency also is prepared to field questions about the legislation.

“This is certainly a federal project, but we’re here to help our South Carolina citizens as best we can. We do expect some additional calls. We’re the logical source for people to call and ask questions and we’ll be geared up to do that,” Farmer said. “It all starts Tuesday.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.