Editor’s note: This story is the second of a two-part series on Montana’s new health insurance marketplace, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law.

HELENA – From state officials to the Montana Chamber of Commerce, a herd of organizations is gearing up to help Montanans cope with a health care game-changer: The launch of the health insurance marketplace, a key component of federal health care reform.

“I would say every person we’ve come into contact with, almost none of them understands the (marketplace),” says Tom Jacobson, executive director of Rural Dynamics Inc., a group advising working-class Montanans on financial issues. “It’s one of the biggest, yet least-known aspects of the Affordable Care Act.”

Next year, Americans who don’t already have health insurance will be required to buy it, or pay a tax penalty.

Those earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level can get subsidies to help them buy that insurance – but only if they buy the policy on the new Internet marketplace, also known as the exchange.

The federal government is scheduled to open the marketplace for Montana on Oct. 1.

Three companies – Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource and the new Montana Health Co-op – will be selling health insurance policies on the marketplace.

The marketplace also may affect how businesses offer health coverage, as some could decide to drop employee coverage and have workers buy subsidized policies on the marketplace.

The federal government and groups close to President Barack Obama say they’re mounting their own massive public relations push to get people without health insurance to sign up for it through the marketplaces.

But their presence has been minimal in Montana, and plenty of local entities are stepping into the void.

*****

Montana’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, is preparing a website that should be ready within the next two weeks to help Montanans navigate the new Affordable Care Act landscape.

Lindeen’s office also will invite Montanans to ask any specific questions they have, through the website or by telephone, and is promising an answer within three business days.

“The ACA is a large, complicated piece of legislation, and Montanans rightly have a lot of questions on how it will affect them,” says Jennifer McKee, spokeswoman for Lindeen’s office.

Private consultants are busy advising their clients and, at times, the general public on how to react to the rollout of the exchanges.

Richard Miltenberger, a partner with Mountain West Benefits of Helena, which advises businesses on health insurance plans, says his company has conducted 50 in-person or web-based seminars on the marketplaces.

He says he generally finds “a complete lack of understanding of how the (marketplace) works.”

“Most Montanans don’t understand that this is just as simple as going to Amazon and comparing apples to apples,” he says. “They think it’s government insurance, which it’s not. Or they think you’re only eligible to get insurance on the (marketplace) if you have special conditions.”

Starting Oct. 1, anyone can shop for health insurance on the marketplace and buy a policy from one of three private insurers.

Nonprofit groups also are getting involved in the effort.

The Center for Rural Affairs, which has an office in Missoula, has been distributing newspaper columns and conducting other outreach, and Rural Dynamics of Great Falls has applied to the federal government to become a “navigator,” which is a non-insurance group that will help educate Montana consumers about the marketplaces.

The federal government has $600,000 to fund navigators in Montana, and will announce grant recipients in August.

*****

Steph Larsen, assistant director of organizing for the Center for Rural Affairs, says the biggest problem she encounters is that people have been “barraged with inaccurate information” and don’t know where to turn for good information.

For example, a national poll this spring showed 42 percent of Americans weren’t sure the ACA was still in force or thought it had been repealed, she says.

Larsen also cautions that in rural Montana, promoters of the Internet-based marketplaces need to realize that easy Internet access is not a given.

“It could be difficult for people in rural Montana,” she says. “Not everyone has a computer. Not everyone is tech-savvy.”

Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy for Families USA, a national consumer group and major supporter of the ACA, says national groups behind the law are planning their big public relations push this summer, timed with the Oct. 1 launch of the marketplaces.

“We have a significant mountain to climb to let people know what’s coming, and that they can begin signing up Oct. 1,” she says.

Jacobson, of Rural Dynamics, agrees and says Montana stands to benefit from the marketplaces because it has a lot of lower-wage workers who should be eligible for substantial subsidies to buy health coverage.

“I really think we need to get the public talking about this,” he says. “But people don’t want to talk about things that they don’t understand. We have to get them to understand the ins, the outs, the options. …

“We need to have neighbors talking across the fence about what type of policy they bought on the (marketplace), rather than debating whether Obamacare is good for the country.”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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(9) comments

trad man
trad man

Glad MT is getting the word out, it is confusing and most folks think it was canceled.....for some folks it would be better to send in the mail the options because they are the ones least likely to have insurance or computers or know how to use one. This plan has been in the works for over 40 years, all of Ted Kennedy's term, so it is pretty ignorant to call it "Obama Care", some folks had the foresight to know what was in store for Americans as the Baby boomers grow old, etc., there is a lot to learn and MT is at the front lines thanks

DMarie
DMarie

Glad to see that the state of Montana is getting it together for their people.
Michigan has nothing prepared......

J555-5
J555-5

It's actually the Comprehensive Affordable Care Act ot CACA.

walter12
walter12

This travesty, this nightmare that has been perpetrated upon the American people who have been so gullible, will always be called only one thing, ObamaCare.

archangel
archangel

It doesn't matter what it's called. Call it ObamaCare, call it the Affordable Care Act, call it The Law of the Land. The point is, it's here and the state of Montana is doing something to get the word out. Let it work.

Longhorn Fan
Longhorn Fan

I hope educational material like this will be available in the other 49 states. Right now all people can talk about is "Obamacare" and how horrible it will be. Some people can't even call it by its proper initials, the ACA.

TrueAmerican
TrueAmerican

I am glad to see this article opening a discussion on the realities of the ACA in Montana. One thing that stands out is how very important it is to address the reality that so many Montanans do not have easy (or even any) access to the internet.

Pistol
Pistol

What if a person is working full time and making $25000. a year? They have no health insurance coverage, and because of OBama Care they are cut back to 30 hour week, so that there employer doesn't have to pay for coverage or the penalty. How are these people who probably can't afford anything because of there pay cut suppose to buy coverage? They would be better off to stop working and go on welfare. It's been reported that some companies are cutting back to twenty hour work weeks, and then helping there employees to find twenty hour a week job with another company. Example a McDonald store cuts back to twenty hours a week, but Burger King hires these people for twenty hour a week, Baucus was correct he helped sign into law a train wreck. I also know of companies who pay 100% of there employee benefits that are going to cancel the benefit, and pay the fine because it's cheaper. Of course the employee must then go buy individual coverage or be fined. Wow! Congratualation to those of you who supported this train wreck.

Readneck
Readneck

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
They all want you to forget that this is a Republican plan; from the Heritage Foundation. Romney set it up in Massachusetts and they like it there.
This will provide more freedom for the working person; being able to buy affordable health care independent of their boss.

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