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Health & Fitness

Sebelius lauds Tampa rec center plan for ACA sign-ups

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Published:   |   Updated: January 13, 2014 at 07:10 PM

TAMPA — Declaring his city “all in” on affordable health care, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he would open nine local recreation centers to the navigators who are helping people enroll for insurance policies in the marketplace created under President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

Buckhorn was joined by Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor for the announcement Monday at the Loretta Ingraham Recreation Center in Tampa’s Carver City/Lincoln Gardens neighborhood.

The event came on a day HHS released enrollment figures suggesting the number of healthy, young adults participating in the program known as “Obamacare” is lagging.

HHS said about 2.2 million people have signed up for a marketplace plan. Twenty-four percent of those were ages 18-34, the department said.

The figure is closely watched because participation by young, healthy adults is critical to the sustainability of the program. Those younger buyers will help subsidize the higher costs of health care for older adults.

The Congressional Budget Office had projected that 7 million people would enroll in the health marketplaces by the March 31 deadline, and the administration hoped 40 percent of them would be young adults.

Buckhorn said 96,000 Tampa residents are uninsured. The figure for Hillsborough County overall is more than 200,000.

“I’m here to tell you that this city is going to do everything to the extent of our ability to make sure our citizens have the opportunity to sign up for affordable health care,” Buckhorn said. “This city is all in. It’s game day. We’ve got 11 weeks left, and we’re going to do everything we can to sign up as many of our citizens that need this. It’s in our best interest economically and morally.”

Navigators, who have been trained to guide people through the process of signing up for health care coverage, will be available from 4 to 7 p.m. on select dates each week beginning Monday through the enrollment deadline of March 31.

The sites are:

* Springhill Center, 1000 E. Eskimo Ave., Mondays.

* Loretta Ingraham Center, 1615 N. Hubert Ave., Tuesdays.

* Cyrus Greene Center, 2101 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tuesdays.

* Jackson Heights Center, 3310 E. Lake Ave., Tuesdays.

* Hunt Center at Al Lopez Park, 4810 N. Himes Ave., Wednesdays.

* Gwen Miller Center, 6410 N. 32nd St., Wednesdays.

* Forest Hills Center, 724 W. 109th Ave., Thursdays.

* Port Tampa Center, 4702 W. McCoy St., Thursdays.

* Copeland Park Center, 11001 N. 15th St., Fridays.

The nine centers are the city’s busiest.

Buckhorn also said the city will be releasing public service announcements urging people to enroll. In addition, Tampa Fire Rescue personnel will have material relating to the Affordable Care Act they will distribute to families they serve, and the city will reach out to faith-based communities to pass along the message.

Sebelius lauded Buckhorn as “very creative” in the strategy.

“Looking at the opportunity to open up rec centers and make sure navigators are available is huge,” she said.

The low numbers reported Monday by HHS appeared to stem mostly from early problems with the enrollment website. “Healthcare.gov is a very different website than it was on Oct. 1, thank God,” Sebelius said.

In a conference call with the national press shortly after her Tampa appearance, Sebelius said the number of people signing up for coverage under Obamacare now totals more than 6 million – the 2.2 million in the private marketplace and the rest through Medicaid.

The number signing up in December, 1.8 million, was more than five times the total for October and November, she said.

“The numbers show a very strong national demand,” she said. “Because of the ACA, it is a brand new day for health care for millions of Americans.”

In Florida, a total of 158,030 have chosen a plan through the marketplace — second only to California with 498,794.

Sebelius and other federal health care officials on the call painted a positive picture of the program even though it has fallen short of the administration’s goal of signing up more young people.

Nancy Delew, an acting deputy secretary in HHS, said when Massachusetts instituted a mandated state coverage plan, younger people tended to sign up late, closer to the deadline, and officials expect the same to happen with Obamacare.

“The trends so far are suggestive of an appropriate mix – but we’re only halfway through the open enrollment period, and we expect an increase in the proportion of young adults,” said Michael Hash, director of the HHS Office of Health Reform.

But Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a news release that the low number of young adults signing up is “increasing the risk to taxpayers of bailing out health insurance companies.”

Earlier in the day, Sebelius took a shot at Florida lawmakers over their reluctance to expand Medicaid, the state-federal program covering the poor. The Obama administration proposed raising income limits for Medicaid eligibility and promised the federal government would foot the bill for the first three years of the expansion and as much as 90 percent of the increase in 2020 and beyond.

While Gov. Rick Scott backed the expansion, he has not made it a priority, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, put the brakes on the effort.

“If Florida continues to turn down the opportunity to expand Medicaid, there still will be millions of Floridians who don’t qualify for affordable health care,” Sebelius said.

Weatherford’s office released a statement from the speaker: “With all due respect to Secretary Sebelius, the disastrous Obamacare rollout has reminded us why more government-run healthcare is not the answer. Mountains of evidence have confirmed that expanding Obamacare to the states will do little to solve our healthcare challenges.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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