Health Secretary Sebelius pushes health care reform in La. - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Health Secretary Sebelius pushes health care reform in La.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - With the clock ticking, President Obama's point person on health care reform stopped in New Orleans Thursday afternoon to encourage locals to sign up for health insurance through the federal government's website, healthcare.gov. The deadline for enrollment to avoid a federal penalty is March 31.

"There's a big need in this state," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Before the rollout of healthcare.gov in October, the federal government put the number of uninsured Louisiana residents at close to 800,000.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in the New Orleans area, the number of enrollees has climbed to close to 20,000.

"And as of March 1, because of the work of many of the people who are in this room, 17,000 individuals in the New Orleans and Metairie area have enrolled," said Landrieu, who attended the media event along with Sebelius.

Local Democrats showed off a young entrepreneur who recently signed up for coverage through healthcare.gov. Chris Merritt said he had been without coverage for five years and thinks health care reform is necessary to get more people covered.

"My monthly payment is $52.72 a month," Merritt said.

But despite Merritt's story, Sebelius conceded that it remains a challenge to get young people to sign up for health insurance.

"A lot of younger, healthier Americans don't get up every day thinking 'what I really need is health care,' so we're trying to be creative with outreach," she said.

Healthy young adults are needed in the health care reform marketplace to keep it viable.

"So that everyone can afford it," said UNO Political Scientist Ed Chervenak.

Louisiana Republicans blasted Sebelius visit.

"Louisiana families need relief from President Obama's health care law, not another sales pitch for a product that has failed millions of Americans," said U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie. "Obamacare is down the home stretch, and it certainly has not delivered, and the people have realized that. Their enrollment figures are so low.

Young people have realized that even the small amounts they're being asked to pay are being used in part to subsidize older people and sick people. Most of the enrollment that Obamacare has experienced has been from people who lost their regular health coverage. And they are also counting people who got Medicaid and in most cases did not have to pay for it.

"What we really need to do is have everybody join together, not try and have things put in place by a totally partisan vote. And find something that works out. This clearly didn't," said Bryan Wagner, a local Republican and former Republican National Committeeman.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has refused to expand the state's Medicaid eligibility as the federal law allows. As a result, Louisiana residents who cannot afford to buy coverage through the federal marketplace or elsewhere also cannot receive state-funded Medicaid health insurance.

"Here in Louisiana, we've made the right decision for Louisiana taxpayers. The reality is when you look at Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, if you believe the numbers about the exchanges and what they're supposed to accomplish, fewer than six percent of our people are going to be uninsured," Jindal said back in November.

Sebelius said for Louisiana, Jindal's decision not to accept federal dollars to expand the number of people who would be eligible for Medicaid is a costly one.

"Louisiana is losing $4.3 million a day that is available from the federal government to help pay for the cost of the uninsured," Sebelius said.

It was Sebelius' second visit to New Orleans in as many months. Some have speculated that ramping up the number of enrollees in Louisiana could help U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is seeking re-election while being berated by Republicans over her vote in favor of health care reform.

"Certainly this has political implications. This race for Senate is a toss-up right now - it's about 50-50, so any help the White House can give Mary Landrieu, I'm sure she will take it," said Chervenak.

The penalty for an individual not having health insurance this year is one-percent of your annual income or $95 whichever is higher. Families could face a penalty of close to $300.

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