While debates flare in Congress over whether the Affordable Care Act should remain law, the District 21 state delegation, which represents Laurel, is getting ready to move forward with one of the act's big milestones.
On Monday, Oct. 1, open enrollment for health coverage under the act, passed in 2010 and commonly known as Obamacare, is set to begin.
And four days later, on Saturday, Oct. 5, the delegation will host a forum at Laurel High School, where health care experts will educate people about their coverage options and, if attendees choose, help them sign up for a plan.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans will be required to have health insurance beginning in 2014. Those who let the registration deadline pass without signing up will be charged a fine.
The new rules can seem overwhelming, but District 21 Sen. Jim Rosapepe said the forum was designed to help answer any questions residents might have.
"This is an opportunity for people to get the help they need," Rosapepe said. "The delegates and I want to make sure the folks in the Laurel area … and in the rest of our District who need access to affordable health care get a chance to learn about the options and get registered if they want."
Rosapepe said many people who aren't currently on Medicaid but who don't receive health care through their jobs would now qualify. As part of Obamacare, Medicaid has been expanded to include people within 138 percent of the poverty line. People who are within 138 and 400 percent of the poverty line are eligible for tax credits that will reduce the cost of care.
The poverty line is based on income per family size. For a family of four, the poverty line is $23,550, and a family of four with an income less than $32,499 would be eligible for Medicaid.
For those who aren't eligible for Medicaid, the state is still offering insurance options through its new Maryland Health Connection, an online marketplace where state residents can compare multiple insurance plans side-by-side.
The experts providing assistance at the forum are hired by the state and trained to be knowledgeable about the health plans offered and eligibility requirements for Medicaid and other programs.
Across Maryland, counties have been grouped into six regions to spread the word about the health connection. Each region has a designated "connector," the county that will take charge of outreach and enrollment efforts. The forum in Laurel will be staffed by employees from the Capital Region, which includes Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services is the connector organization for the Capital Region.
Howard County is part of the Western Region and Anne Arundel County falls within the Central Region, with Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Individuals will have six months to enroll in a plan — the open enrollment lasts from Oct. 1 to March 31, 2014. Individuals who enroll by mid-December will have coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
Small businesses can begin to enroll employees for coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
Rosapepe said the event stood to help many Laurel residents: "There are many people in our community who can't afford the health insurance that they need for them and their families."
The Affordable Care Act, he said, could change that.
Currently, there are between 120,000 and 140,000 uninsured people in Prince George's County, according to the Capital Region connector.
District 21 Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk said the Affordable Care Act works better the more people sign up.
"This law is going to work only if we're able to get people to sign up," she said, "so we have to spread the word."
Peña-Melnyk is on the Health Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates and helped craft the state health exchange.
"I care very deeply about it," she said. "We want to reduce those numbers of uninsured [people]."
Peña-Melnyk and Rosapepe encouraged anyone without insurance to attend the event, which is free but requires pre-registration in order to ensure that there are enough experts to help every attendee.
"It's worth it for people to come because it not only protects their health, but it also protects their financial health" in case of an auto accident or illness, Rosapepe said.
The health care forum will be held at Laurel High School, 8000 Cherry Lane, on Saturday, Oct. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information and to register, go to 21stdistrictdelegation.com or call 301-858-3141. The Capital Region connector's website is capitalhealthconnection.org. Howard County residents can get help at doortohealthcare.org and Anne Arundel County residents can go to healthcareaccessmaryland.org.