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Big Week for Health News

It’s been one heck of a week for reporters, what with half the government shutting down and the rest trying to get the federal health-plan exchange up  and running.  WUSF’s Craig Kopp talks with Health News Florida Editor Carol Gentry about this crazy week. 

Craig:  There's a lot to talk about, but before we get into that, let's look at something that shows just how confused the American public has become from health-care politics. A CNBC poll found 46 percent are opposed to "ObamaCare." But just 37 percent are opposed to the "Affordable Care Act."

Carol: This was a historic week for health care news. The law passed in 2010, but the real rollout began this week. Tuesday was the launch of the Marketplace, an online site where uninsured people can compare health plans and sign up. Most of those who shop there are expected to qualify for a price discount.

Craig: How many people does that affect?

Carol: Most people don’t need to use it because they get a health plan through their employer or the government, like Medicare or Tricare. But even so, this sign-up for health insurance could ultimately touch 20 to 30 million uninsured people in the nation and between 2 and 3 million in Florida by the time the dust settles, in three years or so. It’s huge.

Craig: But isn’t the online Marketplace a mess? That’s what we’ve been hearing around the country ever since it started on Tuesday.

Carol: The breathless coverage on cable gives the impression that the signup at is a disaster, that the system is full of glitches.  Me, I didn’t expect it to work the first day, or even the first week. That’s because I have been through a web design for our news service  several times and it always takes twice as long as they promise and there are always bugs to work out. This federal exchange is huge and complicated.   A couple of days’ delay – that’s no big deal.  You have til Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1. And enrollment is open through March.

Craig:  If most people aren’t affected by this launch, why do you think it’s so important?

Carol: Because this is the first time in almost 50 years, since Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law in 1965,  that we’ll be seeing a substantial expansion of health coverage among the American people . It doesn’t capture everyone, of course; there are more than 1 million uninsured people in Florida it won’t cover. But it’s a milestone.

Craig: Is there anything people can do to get ready before they go on the federal Marketplace?

Carol: Yes, actually you can browse through the plans and prices for each county -- and calculate your subsidy -- at Health News Florida dot Org.  

Craig: What about the other big story of the week, the government shutdown. Will that affect health care?

Carol:  Not in the way that House Republicans had hoped. The shutdown doesn’t affect the Affordable Care Act rollout.

But it does affect the public health infrastructure we depend on.  CDC furloughed 68% of its employees. Health and Human Services, 52%. 

FDA sent home 45% of staff. The ones who remain aren’t the ones we need, but the ones who are paid independently (by pharmaceutical companies that have applied for new drug application permits).

It means: no foodborne outbreak tracking, and no inspection of food imports.

These protections we don’t think about because they’re invisible. But they're vital.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.