ATLANTA (AP) — Consumers in Georgia started buying health insurance Tuesday on federally run electronic exchanges, one of the most prominent changes resulting from President Barack Obama's overhaul of the health care system.
Starting Jan. 1, virtually all Americans must carry health insurance or face fines. But the law also prohibits insurance companies from turning away people in poor health or charging them more money.
While Tuesday marked the first time that U.S. residents could purchase insurance coverage on the system, it was not a make-or-break deadline. The open enrollment period lasts six months and the new coverage will not take effect until Jan. 1.
Across Georgia, a network of organizations assisting people in navigating the new system were fielding questions from consumers hoping to buy coverage. Most of the consumers will qualify for tax credits to help cover their premiums.
The outreach and advocacy director of Georgians For A Healthy Future, Amanda Ptashkin, said she did not expect a large number of people in Georgia signing up on the first day. Across the country, a combination of high demand and technical glitches overwhelmed online systems early in the day. Since Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican and opponent of the law, declined to run Georgia's exchange, the federal government assumed the responsibility.
"There's no real rush," Ptashkin said. "Coverage starts on Jan. 1. ... They can take some time, a day, a week to really feel comfortable. They don't have to feel pressure to enroll right away."
The number of callers phoning the Center For Pan Asian Community Services, which is offering consumer assistance, has picked up, said Peter Yang, a program coordinator. The center will assist anyone seeking information about their health care options, but it specializes in outreach to metro Atlanta's Asian community, including those who need translation assistance.
Apart from typical questions about health care, immigrant families have specific questions about how their residency status affects eligibility.
More than 200 people stopped by a table at Grady Memorial Hospital where two advocates handed out pamphlets explaining the law and giving practical instructions on how to sign up. Hospital officials would not allow a reporter to approach anyone who stopped by the table to ask questions.
Some of those making inquiries did not have any health insurance. Others had employer-provided coverage but wanted to know if the new plans may be cheaper.
"Everybody's situation is different," said Huxie Wilkins, the Seedco program director for Georgia, which received a $2.1 million federal grant to conduct health and outreach activities. "It's about choices and people being able to make educational choices."
A spokesman in Deal's office declined comment on the exchanges and dismissed the law as "a federal issue." Deal has said previously that the law's regulations wouldn't allow Georgia the freedom to craft a true state-based exchange. He's also rejected another pillar of the law: expansion of the Medicaid insurance program to cover more low-income residents who make too much to qualify now but still don't make enough to buy policies on the exchanges.
Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens also declined comment through a spokesman. Hudgens has been an outspoken critic of the law, making appearances at tea party rallies urging Republicans in Congress to refuse funding for agencies that implement the law. That has yielded a budget impasse on Capitol Hill that resulted in a partial government shutdown on Tuesday, since the House and Senate couldn't agree on a spending plan. The shutdown, however, did not affect money for the online exchanges.
A group of Democrats gathered at the Georgia Capitol late Tuesday to applaud the law and urge Georgians to take advantage of it.
Senate Minority Leader Steven Henson said the GOP roadblocks are "sad" and "pathetic." His House counterpart, Rep. Stacey Abrams, dismissed Deal's argument that the law is too expensive. She argued that new opportunities for coverage will yield a healthier, more productive population.
"When you give people the ability to take care of themselves, they will," she said.
Associated Press Writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.