By Robert Fulton
Kandis Driscoll, the workgroup director for the Insuring the Uninsured Project, stood at the podium of a recent session of Obamacare 101 asked if anyone was familiar with what is known as the individual mandate . A smattering of hands from the 90 or so attendees gingerly went up. So Driscoll presented a slide explaining the mandate, breaking down the penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income a person will have to pay on their taxes in the first year if they don’t secure insurance and how that penalty increases in coming years. The room filled with murmurs.
The individual mandate, a key provision of 2010′s Affordable Care Act and such a hotly contested issue that it took a Supreme Court ruling last year to keep it in place, was still news to some.
“We get mixed reactions to the individual mandate,” Driscoll said following the workshop. “Some people have heard about it, and some people haven’t and the people that have heard about it don’t know everything about it.”
The Insuring the Uninsured Project (ITUP) with support form L.A. Care Health Plan, is presenting a series of information sessions in Los Angeles County in the coming weeks.The workshops, titled “ObamaCare 101: An Educational Training on Health Reform,” are designed to educate the staff of community clinics and community-based health organizations in the basic tenets of health care reform. The workshops are for the support staff that the general public deals with on a daily basis, the folks on the front line of taking phone calls and answering questions.
The workshop at AltaMed was ITUP’s third, with at least nine total planned through the end of September, and possibly more to come.
“I think we’re all in a situation where there was a bill and then it was passed and people spent the last three or four years trying to figure out how to implement it, and there’s been a real information void during that period of time,” said ITUP founder and director Lucien Wulsin.
Wulsin said that a large number of the low-income population who will be eligible to benefit from health care reform thinks that the law has been repealed or will not take effect. He added that choices the public will need to make are complex.
“I think the biggest [challenge] is just having to explain a brand new program for which there is no exact precedent,” Wulsin said.
The ObamaCare 101 education sessions take a comprehensive look at the Affordable Care Act and explains key components of health care reform: who is eligible for Medi-Cal expansion; how Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, will work; reforms in the insurance marketplace such as the extension of dependent care, elimination of lifetime limits, prevention of insurance companies canceling coverage, and free preventative care; the impact of reform on businesses big and small; and the individual mandate.
Wulsin, Driscoll and ITUP policy director Kiwon Yoo, answered questions from the audience during and following their presentation. Many asked about the mandate, who will be eligible for subsidies through Covered California, assistance for small employers who offer health insurance and penalties for large employers who don’t.
Patricia Etem, a Los Angeles area public health consultant with Civic Communications Consulting, said she was comfortable with her understanding of the basic tenets of the ACA heading into the workshop, but is concerned by the complexities faced in determining who qualifies for what in the exchanges. She added that she’s worried about the public missing the March 31, 2014 open enrollment deadline for Covered California.
“I think we have a lot of work to do, because I was surprised that not everybody in this room heard about some things,” Etem said.
Nick Montes, an administrator with the Montes Medical Group, and Maricela Arceo, a patient enrollment coordinator with the same group, also attended the session at AltaMed. Arceo said she wanted a better understanding of who was going to become eligible for coverage under the ACA.
Montes added that staff frequently fields questions from the public regarding the health care reform.
“Patients always ask staff what are the changes that might come about, what is this thing that I keep hearing about?” Montes said.
Wulsin founded the nonprofit Insuring the Uninsured Project in 1996 to advance health reform. The ObamaCare 101 info sessions are funded by L.A. Care Health Plan, the nation’s largest publicly operated health plan, and the California Community Foundation, in partnership with the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.
During ITUP’s two-and-a-half-hour presentation, Driscoll, 25, discussed how the ACA has impacted her directly. After graduating from Loyola Marymount University three years ago, she was able to stay on her parent’s health insurance plan until she found employment – and employer-based health coverage – with ITUP. At least one attendee expressed surprise that the extended dependent coverage provision of the ACA was already in place.
Driscoll said that after these workshops, people follow up with circumstantial questions after they’ve digested the information. She added that some attend multiple sessions.
“I really hope that people take away that there are going to be more options available than are available now,” Driscoll said. “I don’t by any means think the law is perfect, but it definitely has made it more accessible for more Americans.”
For more information on upcoming workshops, as well as access to the information presented at the workshops, visit itup.org.