Health & Science
1:00 am
Tue December 17, 2013

Groups Ramp Up Outreach as Healthcare Enrollment Deadline Looms

People in Wisconsin without health insurance have less than a week to buy a plan on the new federal exchange in order for coverage to begin in January.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett addresses reporters Monday at Wheaton Franciscan St. Joseph campus, urging residents to enroll in new insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett addresses reporters Monday at Wheaton Franciscan St. Joseph campus, urging residents to enroll in new insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Premiums are due December 23. Special circumstances apply to low-income residents. Those enrolled in BadgerCare but living above the poverty line have until March 31 to buy a plan. Those not enrolled but living in poverty could buy private coverage until April, when they can join BadgerCare.

One goal is to make sure more people have insurance and fewer use the emergency room. On Monday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett stepped up to a podium in the ER at Wheaton Franciscan’s St. Joseph campus on the city’s west side. He called the ER the busiest in the state, with top-notch doctors, delivering exceptional care.

“But it is not the best place in the state to get your preventive care. And it is not the best place in the world to get care that you don’t need in an emergency room,” Barrett says.

Barrett says ER doctors often don’t have access to patients’ medical records. Plus, trips to the emergency room are expensive. He says the best way to stay out of the ER is to have a primary care doctor and preventative care – and both come with health insurance.

“And so we are here to remind people that they can and should sign up if they want to have coverage that starts on January 1. So the question, of course, after all the publicity is, well how difficult is it to sign up? Well, it’s not difficult at all to sign up at this juncture,” Barrett says.

“For the last three to four weeks we’ve seen increased activity at all of the enrollment sites,” says Joy Tapper, executive director of the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership. It’s been coordinating local efforts to help people sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Tapper says after the troubled healthcare.gov rollout, enrollment numbers are rebounding. But she says groups must redouble efforts to especially connect with the 77,000 low-income people Wisconsin will strike from BadgerCare on April 1. The state is referring them to the federal marketplace.

Tapper says the state is also informing hospitals and healthcare providers which patients will need private insurance.

“Additionally the Department of Health Services had begun doing outbound phone calls and sent several letters and they intend to reset that same outreach again in late January/early February for that population,” Tapper says.

Wheaton Franciscan is one provider reaching out to uninsured patients. Debra Standridge is president of the St. Joseph campus. She says the system has about two dozen certified application counselors.

“Who are starting to meet with our patients who are interested in marketplace options and their incomes also provide them subsidy options just as well. We’re here to make it as easy as possible for our patients. We can be alongside them when they are enrolling and help them through the process,” Standridge says.

Standridge says more insured patients would increase efficiencies. Emergency physicians could focus on emergencies while health care systems could save money. She says more than 20 percent of ER patients last year did not have health insurance.

“In southeast Wisconsin alone, last year, Wheaton Franciscan health care provided over $37.5 million of charity care,” Standridge says.

The state has also taken a hit in overall health rankings.

“Recently, Wisconsin dropped from being the 13th healthiest state in the nation to the 20th healthy state in the nation,” says Bevan Baker, health commissioner for the city of Milwaukee. “The only way we’re going to get back in the top 10, we have to get preventive care, we have to find people medical homes so they can get the care that they need before they get sick so that we can move back into being one of the healthiest states in the country,” Baker says.

Some are getting the message. The federal government reported that as of November 30, 5,300 people in Wisconsin had purchased plans in the new marketplace. The number is expected to grow as healthcare.gov becomes more reliable and the deadlines to buy coverage approaches.