Ky.’s pro-Obamacare policies led to more enrollment and support for it, but many poor are still uninsured and under-informed

Update: This story was updated to reflect the study’s results for those who said they were hurt  by and not directly impacted by the ACA. 

State policy appears to have a major impact on poor people’s thinking about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as how they describe their experience with it, according to a Harvard University study published in the journal Health Affairs.

The study surveyed nearly 3,000 low-income residents in three Southern states that had varying approaches to the ACA and its implementation: “Kentucky, which expanded Medicaid, created a successful state marketplace, and supported outreach efforts; Arkansas, which enacted the private option and a federal-state partnership marketplace, but with legislative limitations on outreach; and Texas, which did not expand Medicaid and passed restrictions on navigators” who help people with the federal and state marketplaces.

The survey found that Kentucky, which has enrolled more than 400,000 people in Medicaid and another 109,000 in private health plans through the Kynect health-insurance exchange, had the highest success in application rates, successful enrollments and positive experiences with the ACA, followed by Arkansas and then Texas.

“This corresponds to the general pattern of state-level engagement and support for the ACA coverage expansions in these three states,” the researchers write.

The study also found that limited awareness and poor information continue to be two of the greatest barriers to the ACA. Even in Kentucky, where awareness was the highest, only half of the poor people surveyed said they had heard “some” or “a lot” about the ACA’s coverage options. About 10 percent of Kentuckians remain without health insurance.

Another barrier to applying for coverage was the perception that it would cost too much, but for those with incomes below 138 percent of poverty in states that have expanded Medicaid, coverage is available without having to pay a premium.

“This adds to previous evidence that information gaps about the law remain a major challenge, particularly among low-income populations who likely have the most to gain from the coverage expansions,” the researchers write.

The study also found that application assistance from navigators and others was the strongest predictor of enrollment, increasing enrollment to 93.1 percent from 84.9 percent. Application assistance was most common in Kentucky (46.2 percent) and least common in Texas (31.9 percent). Navigators help consumers choose health-insurance plans to meet their needs and assist them with the application process.

Kentucky reported an overall better application experience than the other two states in the study, and had a significantly higher enrollment rate (92.4 percent) than Arkansas (87 percent) and Texas (84.8 percent).

The study found that advertising about the law didn’t seem to affect whether people applied for coverage or enrolled in a plan. However, ads were strongly associated with perceptions of the law.

About 20 percent of respondents said they had read or heard more negative ads and approximately 12 percent recalled more positive ads, and two-thirds said ads were about equal. (Negative ads were most frequently reported in Arkansas, where Obamacare was an issue in a U.S. Senate race last year.)

Twice as many respondents felt that the ACA had helped them as hurt them, although the majority reported no direct impact. In Kentucky, 40 percent said it had helped them, 12 percent said it had hurt them and 48 percent said it had not impacted them directly;  In Arkansas, 30 percent said it had helped them, 17 percent said it had hurt them and 54 percent said it had not impacted them directly; and in Texas, 21 percent said it had helped them, 14 percent said it had hurt them and 66 percent said it had not directly impacted them.

“Nonetheless, 48 to 66 percent of low-income adults in all three states felt the law had not directly impacted them in 2014,” the researchers wrote, “which suggests that the ACA has not yet reached many who might benefit from it.”

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