Experts break down care act to AARP members here

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Joanne Corte Grossi, the Philadelphia-based regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that 57,000 Pennsylvanians have applied for insurance in the first seven weeks that the new health insurance marketplace has been live online.

"Despite all the glitches, I think that's pretty good," she said.

Ms. Grossi and AARP president Robert G. Romasco addressed about 200 AARP members at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Their message: Website warts and all, Obamacare has a lot to offer -- and not just for the near-50 million Americans without insurance.

Medicare beneficiaries have benefited with shrinking "doughnut hole" gap payments on their prescriptions and now will get free preventive screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, all while making the overall Medicare program more financially stable, said Mr. Romasco.

More than 3 million young adults, up to age 26, now are able to remain insured under their parents' health plan. And adults with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be denied insurance nor have current policies canceled because they are sick after Jan. 1.

Something had to be done, said Mr. Romasco, to fix a health care system that spends $2.7 trillion annually -- "50 percent more expensive than any other country in the world" -- yet still lags behind many developed nations in quality while excluding almost 50 million Americans.

Mr. Romasco cited his own family's experience: When he and his wife, a breast cancer survivor, moved to Virginia, "I could not get her insurance at any price."

Dozens of audience members submitted questions at the town hall meeting Tuesday, but there were only a few signs of frustration about the widely detailed problems with the marketplace website.

Cathy Sikora of Millvale said she lost her job last December and had questions about whether her 2012 income would make her ineligible for a subsidy even though she's been unemployed for nearly a year. The website was not much help, she said.

"Anybody who uses this health care website has to have a computer programming degree. It has not been a pleasant experience," said Ms. Sikora, who holds an MBA degree and previously worked in finance.

But others echoed the sentiments of Roy Engelman of Brighton Heights, who said Tuesday's session cleared up many of his questions. "I came here thinking this was going to be much more complex than it was going to be. But I don't think it is."

The program still has many critics. On Tuesday, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the Affordable Care Act "actuarially unsound" in a CNBC interview, citing a lack of incentive for young, healthy adults to participate.

Mr. Romasco acknowledged that: "We have to have everybody in the [risk] pool. Everybody has to be in it. By sharing the risk, we have a greater chance of slowing the increase in costs."

But he took issue with the idea that providing health insurance for everyone should pit one generation against another.

"At the end of the day, we're all in this together. We really are in this together."

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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