Americans now have the opportunity to sign up for “Obamacare,” but they will have to wait a few more weeks to actually pick and choose insurance plans.
Just eight weeks before the Oct. 1 launch of open enrollment under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, administration officials announced Monday that the Affordable Care Act is a step closer to reality for millions of uninsured Americans.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said consumers can now go online to healthcare.gov and create personal accounts by establishing a username and password.
However, serious shopping will have to wait until sometime in September, when details on insurance plans and premiums offered in local areas will become available through the new online marketplace.
While Monday's announcement may sound like partial progress only, Sebelius quickly moved to put the law's doubters on notice. "Let me be clear," she said. "We are on target and ready to flip the switch on Oct. 1."
The congressional Government Accountability Office and Treasury's inspector general for the Internal Revenue Service have been among the nonpartisan oversight organizations warning of possible delays with the rollout of the law.
The new personal account feature unveiled Monday will be available just in English for the time being. HHS said personal accounts will be coming soon to the Spanish-language marketplace, at cuidadodesalud.gov.
"Every step of the way there has been a delay in the Spanish language information, but they have gotten there," said Jennifer Ng'andu, health policy director for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group. Hispanics are seen as a key constituency for the law's success. Although they are more likely to be uninsured, they are a young population whose premiums could help subsidize older adults.
But the government's Spanish name for its health care website — cuidadodesalud.gov — doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. "It kind of sounds like 'caution - health care,'" Ng'andu said.
Adding to the many details and the sheer logistical complexity facing the Obama administration is the refusal of congressional Republicans to provide additional implementation funds the president has requested. Some GOP lawmakers are advocating a government shutdown to try to block what they deride as "Obamacare" — a term the administration itself has started using.
The new online insurance marketplaces will be geared to people who don't have coverage through their jobs, most of whom will be eligible for tax credits to help pay their premiums. Insurance benefits take effect Jan. 1. That's also when the law will require most Americans to have health insurance or face fines. In return, insurers will be barred from turning away people with medical problems. The administration hopes to sign up at least 7 million uninsured people next year.
On Monday the administration also launched a special call center for small businesses seeking coverage under the law, at 800-706-7893. Small firms will have access to marketplaces designed for them, and some may be eligible for tax credits as well.
Sebelius said she doesn't mind if people call the Affordable Care Act "Obamacare."
"The president himself embraced the term 'Obamacare,'" Sebelius said in a teleconference with reporters. If it helps getting people signed up, she added, "then I'm all for that."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.