Sebelius asks physician assistants for Obamacare outreach help

WASHINGTON Tue May 28, 2013 2:01pm EDT

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WASHINGTON May 28 (Reuters) - U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked a group representing nearly 46,000 physician assistants on Tuesday to help persuade uninsured Americans to sign up for coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.

As part of a politically embattled administration effort to rally support for the landmark reform law, Sebelius appealed to physician assistants as care providers who treat large numbers of people with little or no health insurance, including those in Republican-controlled states that have rejected the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Sebelius, Obama's top healthcare adviser, has run into mounting opposition from Republicans over efforts to marshal private sector support for a public outreach campaign that could determine whether Obama's signature domestic policy achievement succeeds or flops, just as the 2014 midterm election campaign gets under way.

Republicans in Congress, who are blocking public funds for reform implementation, say Sebelius may have acted improperly by seeking private donations for a nonprofit group that will help lead a public outreach campaign this summer. The administration says Sebelius's actions were fully authorized by law.

"It's absolutely critical that we reach out to uninsured Americans and get them ready to sign up for coverage," Sebelius told a meeting of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, which has 46,000 members.

"You're already a trusted source of health information," she said. "They come to you with questions about their future. And for you to learn about the new options coming their way and helping to share that information could be a huge bridge that we need."

Physician assistants are not medical doctors but practice medicine as part of medical teams in hospitals, clinics and physician practices. They represent a fast-growing job segment in healthcare, with 6,000 new entries each year to a field that currently includes about 100,000 practitioners.

Under the reform law, millions of uninsured people will become eligible on Jan. 1 for subsidized private health insurance, either through new online state marketplaces or an expanded Medicaid program for the poor.

The Obama administration has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to a summer publicity campaign to persuade young, healthy uninsured people to sign up for coverage. Large numbers are needed to avoid a potential spike in costs that could occur if new customers are limited to sick or older people who are costlier to insure.

Tuesday's appeal by Sebelius could help reach uninsured populations in isolated rural and urban settings, where doctors are in short supply and physician assistants are often the caregivers who patients see.

Since January, the health secretary has spoken to a wide range of "stakeholders" including companies and nonprofit groups to encourage nonfinancial support for reform implementation and public outreach, according to HHS officials.

Sebelius's remarks to physician assistants followed on the heels of a $150 million program to use health centers as health insurance enrollment sites by hiring and training thousands of new outreach staff.

She said physician assistants have considerable experience with the uninsured and understand that many have given up on the idea of being able to afford coverage or live in a state whose leaders oppose the healthcare reform law.

"Connecting uninsured and underinsured patients that you already serve with quality health insurance that they may need for their future is one of the best things that we can do to advance their health," she said. (Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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