‘Obamacare’ countdown gets underway

Fewer than 100 days before uninsured Americans can sign up for coverage, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Monday the administration is gearing up with new call centers, a revamped website — and a confab with the National Football League.

No deals yet, Sebelius told reporters. But she said the idea of partnering to publicize the benefits of health insurance has gotten an enthusiastic reception from the NFL and other pro sports leagues.

Health promotion is a goal for the leagues and “good for the country,” Sebelius said.

Football season would be in full swing Oct. 1, when consumers can start shopping for coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Benefits take effect Jan. 1, around the time of the playoffs.

Opponents are looking for a goal-line fumble by the Obama administration as the long-awaited expansion of coverage for the uninsured finally happens. But if Sebelius is nervous, she doesn’t let on.

“It’s a huge undertaking across the country, and I’m confident we’re going to get it done,” she said. Not only sports leagues, but also community organizations, religious denominations and public health groups will be involved with outreach.

Starting Oct. 1, consumers will be able to access new online marketplaces through HealthCare.gov and shop for private insurance plans in their communities. The federal government site will be the main portal to the new law, since about half the states are letting Washington run the coverage expansion.

Middle-class people who don’t have job-based coverage will use the marketplace to apply for tax credits to help pay their premiums — a process that’s supposed to take place smoothly and in close to real time, though skeptics doubt it. Low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that accept it.

All told, it’s the biggest expansion of the social safety net since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid nearly 50 years ago. With polls showing that the law remains unpopular, and even many uninsured thinking they won’t be be helped, things are likely to get off to a slow start.

About 7 million people are expected to sign up for coverage in the new marketplaces next year, also called exchanges. That number is projected to more than triple in a few years.

Six call centers around the country have opened in recent days, and 11 will be in operation by the fall, providing service 24 hours a day. The government is arranging translation services in 150 languages, from Tagalog to Russian.

The HealthCare.gov website has been revamped to make it a tool for consumers instead of policy wonks. It’s been designed to work with mobile devices, and offers ready links to social media. Plan comparisons for next year are not yet available, but there is plenty of information on how health insurance works.

The government’s name for the Spanish-language version of the site, however, still sounds clunky and bureaucratic. If there’s confusion, that could become an issue, since Latinos are more likely to be uninsured than people of any other major ethnic group.

The Spanish site’s name, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, means something like “care of health.”