“The grant provided us with the opportunity to . . . actually take the 20 or 30 minutes, or however long, to help someone complete an application,” said Audrey Seldin, senior associate commissioner for consumer protection at the Texas Department of Insurance, which oversees the program.
But less than a year after it opened, the Texas Consumer Health Assistance Program is preparing to shut down, a victim of Congress’s inability to agree on a federal budget for next year. The nine employees are likely to be dismissed in April. The events will stop and the toll-free hotline will redirect to a general consumer assistance number at the Texas Department of Insurance, which deals with all kinds of insurance and has less expertise in health coverage.
Texas is among the 35 states that received health reform grants to build consumer assistance programs more than a year ago. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 set aside nearly $30 million to fund the program in 2010, which states have used to handle questions about how to obtain affordable health coverage or appeal denied insurance claims.
The health reform law also authorized future funding for the consumer assistance program, but left it to Congress to appropriate that money — in contrast to most other provisions in the law, which were automatically funded into the future. When the House and Senate failed to pass a budget last year, operating instead on a short-term fix that continued all existing appropriated programs, the consumer assistance program was shut out.
“I don’t know that, while health reform was being debated, any of us understood how hard it would be to get additional funding going forward,” said Christine Barber, a senior policy analyst with Community Catalyst, a Boston-based community advocacy group that has worked with many of the new programs.
Barber and other consumer advocates say the funding could not have run out at a worse time. The federal health reform law has left more Americans with questions about how health insurance is changing. Those are likely to increase as the law is expected to expand coverage to 32 million more Americans by 2019.
“I have a little bit of a nightmare about what will happen” when the funding runs out, said Victoria Veltri, who oversees Connecticut’s grant and is currently looking to the state or private foundations to continue her program. “I won’t stop searching for funding.”