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Monday May 4th, 2015 3:01AM

Consumers start buying insurance on Ga. exchanges

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- Consumers in Georgia started buying health insurance Tuesday on federally run electronic exchanges, one of the most prominent changes resulting from President Barack Obama's overhaul of the health care system.

Starting Jan. 1, virtually all Americans must carry health insurance or face fines. But the law also prohibits insurance companies from turning away people in poor health or charging them more money.

While Tuesday marked the first time that U.S. residents could purchase insurance coverage on the system, it was not a make-or-break deadline. The open enrollment period lasts six months and the new coverage will not take effect until Jan. 1. Across Georgia, a network of organizations assisting people in navigating the new system were fielding questions from consumers hoping to buy coverage.

The outreach and advocacy director of Georgians For A Healthy Future, Amanda Ptashkin, said she did not expect a large number of people in Georgia signing up on the first day. Across the country, a combination of high demand and technical glitches overwhelmed online systems early in the day. Since Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican and opponent of the law, declined to run Georgia's exchange, the federal government assumed the responsibility.

"There's no real rush," Ptashkin said. "Coverage starts on Jan. 1. ... They can take some time, a day, a week to really feel comfortable. They don't have to feel pressure to enroll right away."

The number of callers phoning the Center For Pan Asian Community Services, which is offering consumer assistance, has picked up, said Peter Yang, a program coordinator. The center will assist anyone seeking information about their health care options, but it specializes in outreach to metro Atlanta's Asian community, including those who need translation assistance.

Apart from typical questions about health care, immigrant families have specific questions about how their residency status affects eligibility.

More than 200 people stopped by a table at Grady Memorial Hospital where two advocates handed out pamphlets explaining the law and giving practical instructions on how to sign up. Hospital officials would not allow a reporter to approach anyone who stopped by the table to ask questions.

Some of those making inquiries did not have any health insurance. Others had employer-provided coverage but wanted to know if the new plans may be cheaper.

"Everybody's situation is different," said Huxie Wilkins, the Seedco program director for Georgia, which received a $2.1 million federal grant to conduct health and outreach activities. "It's about choices and people being able to make educational choices."
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