MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- An advocacy group that's worked for months to spread the word about a new health insurance marketplace born of the Affordable Care Act says West Virginia has passed up millions of dollars in federal advertising money that could have helped.In July, the Associated Press found West Virginia was spending more per capita than any other state to promote awareness of the law and the new health care exchanges, with $17.1 million. That amounts to $9.23 per resident and was 11th among the states in total spending.But Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said word has yet to reach countless working West Virginians who may not read newspapers or otherwise have heard the details of the health care overhaul often called "Obamacare.'' The people who will benefit most, he said, remain least likely to know about it.To collect millions in public-education grants, "all we had to do was write a proposal and send it in,'' Bryant said late Monday as West Virginia prepared to launch a state-federal partnership called a health care exchange. "But the state passed altogether.''
Spokeswomen for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state Department of Health and Human Resources did not immediately comment.Starting today, West Virginians who have no health insurance can sign up for coverage that will kick in Jan. 1, 2014. Tax credits based on income, age, location, family size, tobacco use and other factors can help offset the price of the premiums.On average, the Obama administration says premiums for a midrange benchmark plan will cost $331 per person. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that six in 10 people will be able to find at least some level of coverage for $100 or less per month, after tax credits.Navigators, independent counselors paid under federal grants, will help people determine which plan best suits their needs. Assistance is also available at hospitals and other health care facilities, at county DHHR offices, and at a variety of private and nonprofit organizations.Some 245,000 West Virginians are currently uninsured, by federal estimates. Under the Affordable Care Act, no one can be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition.Perry said his group has trained more than 850 people across the state in July and August, giving them exhaustive 4 1/2-hour primers on the new law in hopes of building what he calls a ground game. It's also helped fund outreach efforts by 31 nonprofit groups."But it would have been great to have this ground game coupled with an air war -- TV and radio spots,'' he said. Instead, "West Virginia is kind of fighting this battle with one arm tied behind its back.''Some private groups will run spots on their own, including the only seller in West Virginia's health care exchange, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.But Perry said smaller ad budgets mean smaller audiences, and because it's a more fractured approach, "it doesn't have an overarching theme, so it's not going to be effective.''It may not be too late to seek federal grants, Perry added. "What they need is the political will to implement Obamacare.''The DHHR says it's ready to launch the exchange, but an official overseeing the program faults the federal government for failing to educate the public.
To learn more about the exchange, call 1-800-318-2596.