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Congress ‘hangs up’ on consumer program

Texas - state with most uninsured - is among first to prepare for shutdown of consumer assistance program

consumer assistance program congress

If you plan to call one of the federally funded consumer assistance programs because you’re frustrated by health insurance issues, you should probably call soon – while operators are still standing by.

The federal health reform law does a lot of good things for consumers, even if the details sometimes seem hard to fathom. The system has gotten so complex that it can be hard to put it in simple terms – and that’s why it’s easy to understand the law’s funding of state consumer assistance programs.

At their core, these programs provide hotlines that connect callers with knowledgeable human beings who can help with health insurance problems. Now, sadly, Congress seems to be allowing the program to die an early death, declining to fund it beyond the initial $30 million, which was distributed to 35 states.

In some states, the hotlines may have to shut down if they can’t find another source of funding. An article in the Washington Post this week notes that the Texas Consumer Health Assistance Program is preparing to hang up its phones. That’s a shame, because Texas has the worst uninsured rate in the country and its citizens need a lot of help finding coverage.

This is also a giant bummer for many people across the country who have difficult-to-resolve questions. (When’s the last time you had an “easy” health insurance question?) Things aren’t getting any easier as we get closer to Jan. 1, 2014, when a new system of health insurance exchanges is supposed to be up and running, providing online marketplaces for consumers buying their own health plans.

It’s disappointing that Congress couldn’t get it together long enough to throw a few dollars toward helping people out with one of the most frustrating parts of modern life. Geez, think of the political points members of the House and Senate could have rung up by supporting this program. The campaign ads could have touted a lawmaker’s efforts to save this great, relatively inexpensive program that helps real people.

Some might argue that these programs are wasteful, pointing to the Texas hotline, which employed nine people and cost $2.8 million. But the Texas program has done a lot more than answer phones. As the Post’s article points out, the program undertook an extensive public outreach program that included 160 events across the state that took coverage information to Texans, including many uninsured.

Other states have gone further. Some – like Maine – have used funds to represent citizens denied claims by carriers. Others have monitored and reported insurers that are out of compliance with health reform rules.

It’s certainly possible that every dollar hasn’t been spent well, but it’s also hard to argue that consumers need less help figuring out their health insurance options.

The good news is that even while some states have lost funding, they’re working hard to find other sources of funding for the programs. In the meantime, consumers can visit a federal site that lists all the current consumer assistance programs. You can also search this site to find other resources in your state that might assist you.

But if you need help, call now – while operators are still standing by.

Jan Greene is a health care writer who has been reporting about the health care system for nearly 20 years. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesHealth magazine, and a variety of trade publications for doctors and health care organizations. Check out Jan’s previous articles for the Health Insurance Resource Center about the self-employed health insurance deduction, preventive services for women, free preventive services for seniors in Medicare and health insurance for elderly new immigrants.


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