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Many Americans unaware of health-care law changes

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After surviving a Supreme Court decision and a presidential election, the Obama administration’s health-care law faces another challenge: a public largely unaware of major changes that will roll out in the coming months.

States are rushing to decide whether to build their own health exchanges and the administration is readying final regulations, but a growing body of research suggests that most low-income Americans who will become eligible for subsidized insurance have no idea what is coming.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that people who will be affected do not realize the urgency, because the subsidies will not begin for another year. But policy decisions are being made now that will affect tens of millions of Americans, and the lack of public awareness could jeopardize a system that depends on having many people involved.

Low enrollment could lead to higher premiums, health policy experts say. Hospitals worry that, without widespread participation, they will continue getting stuck with patients’ unpaid medical bills. And advocates say the major purpose of the Affordable Care Act — extending health insurance to more Americans — will go unmet if large numbers of vulnerable people don’t take advantage of it.

But because “Obamacare” has been so controversial, and its fate caught up in the presidential campaign, there has been little public discussion about the specifics of putting it into action. States such as Texas and Florida, where opposition to the legislation was strong, have been slow to embrace the law, and critics have been loath to promote it. Initial White House efforts at outreach caused congressional Republicans to accuse the administration of using taxpayer money for political gain.

In mid-November, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) subpoenaed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, demanding information about how her agency has used federal money to promote the Affordable Care Act. The administration is preparing a final budget for an outreach program focused on the opening of the exchanges next October.

“People hear it’s going to come in 2014, which makes it not very relevant to their lives,” said Tevi Troy, a top Health and Human Services official under President George W. Bush. “If you don’t have an understanding of the law, that’s when you’re going to have real take-up problems.”

Seventy-eight percent of the uninsured Americans who are likely to qualify for subsidies were unfamiliar with the new coverage options in a survey by Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners. That survey, sponsored by the nonprofit Enroll America, also found that 83 percent of those likely to qualify for the expansion of Medicaid, which is expected to cover 12 million Americans, were unaware of the option.

In separate October polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41 percent of voters described themselves as “confused” about the health-care law.

Even in Maryland, one of the states that has most aggressively implemented the Affordable Care Act, awareness is low. A survey released Monday found that 30 percent of likely Maryland voters describe themselves as knowing “a lot” about the coming changes.

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