TOLEDO, Ohio - Ohio's 1.5 million uninsured residents can start shopping for health insurance on the marketplace that's a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's signature health care law. But some organizations that received federal money to hire people to walk consumers through the process will not be ready to help for weeks.
Ohio is leaving it to the federal government to run the state's health insurance marketplace and isn't promoting the program that launched on Tuesday, while the state Department of Insurance said that none of the "navigators" have been certified to start helping.
The online insurance marketplaces, also called exchanges, were having trouble with the volume of consumers on the first day of the six-month open enrollment period. Ohio's exchange site at one point had a message that said the system was down. Residents can also apply by phone, but callers to the federal call center were reporting long wait times Tuesday.
Consumers have until the end of March to choose a health care plan to avoid tax penalties, but they must sign up by mid-December if they want coverage by Jan. 1.
Five organizations in the state are getting about $3 million from the federal government to help people sign up for insurance and get the word out about the marketplaces. State law bans those workers from offering advice on which benefit plan is best suited for someone.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks received almost $2 million to hire and train between 30 to 40 outreach workers and volunteers. Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the food bank association's executive director, said her group is waiting for the state to certify its workers who already have been hired and gone through background checks. She hopes those workers will be in place between mid-October and the beginning on November.
"A lot of this terminology is going to be new for folks," Hamler-Fugitt said, noting that many applicants will need help because the registration process requires gathering financial information and sorting through insurance options.
Doni Miller, chief executive of the Neighborhood Health Association in Toledo, said the group hopes to hire navigators next week and have them in place by the end of the month. She wasn't worried that the delays will stop people from seeking health insurance.
"People who need this are going to be dogged about enrolling," Miller said.
Ben Walkenhauer, a musician from Cincinnati, said getting the chance to buy health insurance means less worrying about facing an unexpected medical bill. "There's always the concern that something can happen anytime," he said.
Walkenhauer, 28, said he's healthy but hasn't seen a doctor in several years. "I would like to just go and get a check-up," he said.