The number of people who don't have health insurance is daunting under the best of circumstances, but deadlines are looming to get people signed up before they face penalties next year.
Here in Beaufort County, a surprisingly high percentage of residents under age 65 -- 21.6 percent -- don't have health insurance, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising in a county whose tourism economy is dominated by service-sector jobs. Jasper County has the highest percentage of uninsured in the state at 27.4 percent. Statewide, an estimated 733,000 people need to sign up for health insurance to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.
Educating people about a federal health insurance exchange, who qualifies, how it works and the options it offers will be very important. Health insurance is complicated; understanding your options and what's best for you and your family can be difficult.
Enrollment in health care exchanges begins Oct. 1. The exchanges are designed to get coverage to the uninsured. Everyone must have insurance by March 31 or face a tax penalty of $95. Some people can qualify for a tax credit to help with the cost.
In addition to choosing not to expand Medicaid coverage, South Carolina opted not to set up its own health care exchange. Instead, the federal government set up an exchange. It offers policies from four companies. Another eight companies have filed plans to provide individual policies outside the federal exchange, the state Department of Insurance reports.
The federal government is spending $4.3 million to get people signed up in South Carolina. The Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Center received a federal grant of $144,514 to help people understand their options and enroll them in a plan. It was one of 19 health centers awarded a total of $2.4 million in July.
Gaynelle Dantzler, administrative director of reimbursement services at Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, says the center is partnering with Hilton Head Hospital, Beaufort Memorial Hospital and Coastal Carolina Hospital to reach more people. The center hopes to educate around 4,000 people and enroll at least 1,400 when the exchange opens.
Those numbers look good until you think about the number of uninsured people in the area -- about 26,700 in Beaufort County and 5,725 in Jasper County.
In addition to enlisting health centers, the federal Department of Health and Human Services has laid out a multi-pronged approach to reaching people:
DECO, a company that provides medical assistance eligibility management for hospitals, will work with the Benefits Bank, part of the state Office of Rural Health, to enroll people statewide. It was awarded $1.2 million from the federal government last month. The Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce received $234,000, and Columbia-based Cooperative Ministry received $508,300.
Tony Keck, the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, says more money is needed for outreach in areas with a higher percentage of people with low incomes or in poor health. Let's hope that happens. There's a lot of work to do between Oct. 1 and Jan. 1, when everyone is supposed to have coverage.