Sebelius: Website will be better by end of month
DETROIT (AP) — President Barack Obama's top health care official said Friday that the number of people wanting to keep insurance policies that were canceled because of the federal health overhaul is fairly small, but they have valid concerns that the administration is addressing.
"It's a relatively small number of people in the overall scheme of things. But for those people it's real," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a visit to a Detroit health clinic, where she sought to reassure the public that a troubled federal insurance website that launched Oct. 1 will be much improved by the end of November.
Obama on Thursday said his administration no longer will require insurers to jettison plans that fall short of minimum coverage standards. Sebelius told reporters that the president's decision to let people who buy their own insurance keep the plan for another "bridge year" strikes a balance between ultimately still steering them to plans with more comprehensive coverage and also recognizing that residents who do not qualify for tax subsidies on the exchange may be at a financial disadvantage.
"The last thing he wants is people to be without coverage," she said.
About 225,000 Michigan residents — or less than 3 percent of the state's nearly 8.7 million insured residents — could be subject to having their policies discontinued, according to the state insurance department, which is reviewing Obama's new proposal. The state insurance commissioner would have to agree to allow the proposed change to take effect. Insurance companies also are scrambling to figure out their next steps.
Sebelius toured the Community Health and Social Services Center on the city's southwest side and observed as counselors helped guide a couple of uninsured residents through their options under the law. Coverage starts Jan. 1 for residents who sign up for insurance on the website, in person, by phone or mail. Low-income residents who qualify for Michigan's expanded Medicaid program will be covered April 1.
Sebelius asked enrollment specialist Jaileene Tavarez if she was finding the website easier to use.
"Yes," Tavarez said. Then they both laughed. "It's been a challenge, but it's going along just fine."
"Oh, that's good," Sebelius said. "That's good."
Just 1,300 state residents picked an exchange plan in the first month, a number that Republicans say is dwarfed by cancellations issued due to the law. Sebelius said people are still shopping and she expects them to visit healthcare.gov 10 to 15 times before choosing a plan.
Sebelius highlighted the story of Diane Kay, a 33-year-old self-employed lawyer who said she went to the website on Monday and was able to enroll in a plan in 30 minutes. When Kay had tried in October, she said she could not create an account.
Kay, of Brighton, has been without insurance since 2007, saying that a pre-existing condition made $1,000-plus monthly premiums unaffordable and that the coverage would have been substandard regardless. She said she found a plan that will cost her roughly $175 a month on the exchange.
"I got a huge break," Kay said.
People have until the end of March to enroll.
"I think the only way that we are really going to regain the confidence of the American public is to have the site work. And that is what everybody is aiming to do," Sebelius said.
Associated Press writer Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.