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"Health Coverage Rollout Hits Biggest Challenge" WBUR stories

If you are looking for more information about Commonwealth Choice plans, here is the number for the call center run by the Connector...1-877-623-6765.BOSTON, Mass. - May 01, 2007 - Two months before the deadline for all residents to have health insurance, there is still a lot of confusion, frustration and misunderstanding about the mandate and coverage options.

Insurance for the 200,000 or so residents who will have to buy a plan on their own goes on sale today. WBUR's Martha Bebinger reports on the hard sell for insurers and the state.

Click here to listen to this story (Real Audio).

TEXT OF STORY

MARTHA BEBINGER: We'll start with Pat, a 32 year old uninsured computer consultant who, according to state guidelines, can easily afford health insurance. But Pat, who prefers we use just his first name, is not signing up.

PAT: It makes me a little bit nervous, I have been sick in the past and I've sought medical care but I've paid a lot less than I would have paid in insurance. The insurance policies that are being marketed have high deductibles. Unless you get catastrophically ill, they really don't benefit you.

BEBINGER: Most of the cheapest plans that go on sale today have higher deductibles or other out of pocket expenses than the average plans Massachusetts residents get currently through their employer. But the plans cover preventive visits outside the deductible. Rather than buying health insurance, Pat is thinking about suing the state. 63-year-old Carolyn Barnes is more forgiving, but still frustrated. Barnes, a part-time librarian who lives on Cape Cod, uses acupuncture, and herbs to stay healthy...treatments most insurance plans don't cover.

CAROLYN BARNES: I am grateful to the state of MA for being progressive. At least they are trying to do something. I just think we should have the choice to be in or out. I'm going to be paying quite large sums of money for a health plan and paying for my holistic practitioners on top of that.

BEBINGER: For months now, teams of market researchers have been holding focus groups and trying craft messages aimed at Pat, Carolyn Barnes and the 200,000 or so other uninsured residents who may be reluctant to buy coverage on their own. The state's ads won't start until late in the month to avoid overloading a new enrollment hotline and website. Commonwealth Connector communications officer Joan Fallon says they will be targeted messages.

JOAN FALLON: Men worry about financial ruin should an unforeseen accident occur. Women on the other hand are very concerned with access to preventative care. But we did find pretty much across the board that people who don't have health insurance do worry about that they realize that it is taking a risk, none of us are invincible.

[INSURANCE COMPANY AD]
I feel more secure, taken care of, not shut out. I now have peace of mind. If you're uninsured it's time to get into a health plan (fade under here)

BEBINGER: Some insurers are ready with ads today...this one is from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts Health plan are also rolling out marketing campaigns. (The state is printing postcards for three-point million taxpayers...a reminder that health insurance will soon be required, as well as letters to 193-thousand businesses describing their obligations.) And the direct mail campaign from insurers outside the state is on...

[Sound of letter ripping]

BEBINGER: I got this letter from MEGA last week (and I've had insurance for at least 20 years, so they must be casting a pretty wide net). The letter reads...

"Dear Ms. Bebinger, if you or someone you know needs medical attention, will you have the coverage you need? At Mega, we understand. That's why we've made available an affordable health insurance plan for people who are responsible for their own health insurance."

The letter goes on, but you get the message, and so does Attorney General Martha Coakley. She has anticipated these campaigns and warns residents not to buy the first or cheapest plan they see.

MARTHA COAKLEY: We advise them to be in touch with doctors, watch out for companies that...may end up costing them more in the long run if every time they go there is a high co-payment or deductible.

BEBINGER: But many residents may not even be aware that Massachusetts is on the verge of requiring health insurance and funding for education and outreach about the law runs out in July. In the meantime, hospitals and clinics are signing up patients, businesses are stuffing fliers into shopping bags, outreach workers are going door to door and the calendar of workshops is filling up.

[fade up church music here]

BEBINGER: At Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, pastor Helen Nablo, asks congregants to volunteer as sort of health coverage outreach workers trained by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

HELEN NABLO: It is going to be an education effort, people who can talk one on one with people who might have reticence, but the idea that it is just going to fall into place, I don't think anyone has that kind of naivet?it's going to be a lot more work.

Bebinger: So will people sign up, file lawsuits or just ignore the requirement? The first in the country experiment with mandatory health insurance is underway. For WBUR, I'm Martha Bebinger.

This program aired on May 1, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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