GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Affordable Care Act was up and running in Berkshire County on Tuesday, with a legion of trained staff ready to guide needy residents through changes in state-sponsored health insurance under the federal program.
Oct. 1 marked the first day people could enroll into new health care plans, with the enrollment deadline ending March 31. Trained staffers were on hand at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Ecu-Health in North Adams, and Fairview Hospital and Community Health Programs in Great Barrington to assist residents through new provisions in the law.
"I think it's important to be getting the word out and providing education," said Charles "Chip" Joffe-Halpern, executive director of Ecu-Health Care. The North County nonprofit health care access organization is overseeing the use of $140,000 provided through two state grants to guide people through the law.
The new law expands eligibility into the state's Medicaid program. It also provides premium federal tax credits to increase the pool of those eligible for subsidized care, according to health professionals. Those on Commonwealth Care and other state health programs are advised to join the state Connector Care program before Dec. 15 to receive continuous uninterrupted care entering 2014.
Health care officials are encouraging the thousands that could be impacted not to procrastinate.
"Many of these patients will receive notices and packets. They are comprehensive and big, but clear enough to make a decision," said Octavio Hernandez, an outreach coordinator at Community Health Programs. "A good number of our client population will have trouble reading the material and some don't open the letters."
The new health law expands those eligible for a subsidized plan. The income requirement for an individual will increase from 300 percent above the poverty level, or $34,476, to 400 percent, or $45,960. A family of four earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level, or $94,200, would now be eligible. The previous income requirement was 300 percent, or $34,476.
Individuals earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level will now be eligible for the state's Medicaid program.
"The major impact in this is causing those who didn't [quite] qualify for Medicaid, they will now," Hernandez said.
Those who most likely will benefit include the uninsured, part-time employees, and those who do not receive insurance through their employer, Hernandez said.
The new law allows for those without health insurance to be fined beginning on Jan. 1, with some exceptions. Individuals will either be fined 1 percent of annual income or $95, depending on whatever is higher. There are exceptions depending for those insured less than three months or an income too low to file.
CHP will have a re-designed website launching today that should provide important information, Hernandez said. There will be an open house at CHP's dental office, 343 Main St., Great Barrington, on Oct. 26 that will provide additional information.
To reach John Sakata:
On Twitter: @JSakata
Get help ...
Berkshire County residents can get assistance to apply for all of the new health coverage programs at these locations:
n South County: Community Health Programs, Great Barrington: (413) 528-9311; Advocacy for Access at Fairview Hospital, Great Barrington: (413) 854-9608 or www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/FairviewAdvocacy.
n Central County: Advocacy for Access at Berkshire Medical Center, Pittsfield: (413) 445-9480 or www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/access.
n North County: Ecu-Health Care, North Adams: (413) 663-8711 or http:// ecuhealth.boxcarexpress.com.
n Individuals can also apply via Massachusetts Health Connector: 1-877-MA ENROLL (1-877-623-6765) or https://www.mahealthconnector.org.