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Editorial: Health care changes will require simplicity, communication blitz

May. 02, 2013 @ 11:46 PM

Let's hope the federal government learned a lesson from one of its first forays into setting up the necessary mechanisms for people to navigate the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Full benefits under the program, also known as Obamacare, start Jan. 1, and people who do not have health insurance now are supposed to begin applying for coverage through exchanges run by states or the federal government.

It was that first step -- filling out an application form -- that raised questions last month when the Obama administration released for public review the paper application form it intended for the uninsured to use.

To put it mildly, the response was not positive. Critics said the form was too complicated, too lengthy at 21 pages and too cumbersome. While many of the 30 million or so people who are expected to eventually get coverage likely will use an online application, many of the people confronted by the paper form may well throw up their hands in frustration, the critics said. Some suggested the application was appreciably worse than trying to navigate a complicated income tax return.

To its credit, the federal government's Health and Human Services Department responded. This week it unveiled the final versions of the applications. A short form for single people is only five pages, including a cover page with instructions and another page to designate someone to help through the process, if the applicant so desires. For families, the number of pages grows to a minimum of 12 pages and gets longer as children are added. That still sounds like a lot of work, but most reviewers of the new forms say they are a vast improvement.

While the merits of the health care reform law are still widely debated, the fact remains that it offers an opportunity for millions of people who now have no health insurance to gain coverage. For them to make the most of it, the government should make the process as painless as possible while still collecting the necessary information for enrollment.

Beyond that, though, the government should do all it can to inform all Americans about changes brought forth under health care reform. What new rights will they have? (For example, insurers will no longer be able to turn away the sick or charge them more.) What possible penalties might they have to pay? What should they do if they already have health insurance through an employer? (Most employees already with health insurance won't have to fill out an application form.)

Unfortunately, many people don't know the answers to those questions. A poll conducted in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of the uninsured and a majority of Americans overall say they have too little information to know how the Affordable Care Act will affect them.

That finding suggests that the government has a monumental task ahead of it. A strategy to inform the public fully about the coming changes as well as keeping the entire process as simple as possible should be the hallmarks of fulfilling that task.

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