By PATRICK MORRISEY
On Oct. 1, health insurance exchanges opened in West Virginia and throughout the nation to sign people up for insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. This is a significant change because for the first time ever, every American citizen will be required to have health insurance by Jan. 1 or face tax penalties.
This law is expected to impact tens of thousands of West Virginians who currently do not have health insurance and will be required to either buy private insurance on the exchange or take part in government-funded public insurance. But the general confusion about this law - what consumers need to buy and how they should buy it - also is opening the door for schemers who may use this opportunity to take advantage of you or your neighbors.
Our Office’s Consumer Protection Division will play a pivotal role in protecting consumers’ privacy and fighting fraudulent schemes that will arise from the implementation of the new law. Over the next several months, we will actively work with citizens of West Virginia to educate them on facts they need to know about the new law and take calls through our hotline if they encounter problems.
Any time new programs role out, there are bound to be unethical people who try to take advantage of confusion. Each person should take the time to learn about the new law and what it means to them using trusted, reliable sources.
However, our Office also is trying to educate consumers about the do’s and don’ts when it comes to health care:
* Do not give any personal or financial information to people who make unsolicited calls or visits and say you must provide the information to either receive or keep health insurance coverage. Reputable sources will not use strong-arm tactics or intimidation to get you to surrender private information. Significantly, navigators are prohibited from going door to door.
* Do not believe anyone who threatens you with a fine for not having health insurance. While there will be a penalty on people who do not have some form of health insurance beginning in 2014, that penalty will be assessed on federal income tax returns; it will not come in the form of a bill or someone calling and demanding a payment.
* Do not respond to offers for an Affordable Care Act or Obamacare card. Those types of cards do not exist and are not legitimate.
* If someone asks you to wire money, disclose your bank account number or deposit money on a prepaid card, hang up, close the door or walk away.
* Avoid websites that may have been created by scammers to fool people into releasing private information. The best way to ensure you are using a legitimate site is to look at the web address in your search engine bar. If the address looks strange or has misspellings, doesn’t start with https:// indicating a secure login, or uses unfamiliar domain codes (such as .info, .mx, .uk instead of .com, .org or .gov) it may be a fake website.
* Keep track of your bank accounts and credit card balances so you can see if anything has been misused. If you see a questionable expenditure, let your bank, credit card and the three credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion *- know immediately.
Our Office is very concerned about the risk of fraud and/or identity theft with this new program. The best way to ensure your personal information stays safe is to only provide it to people who are legitimately trained to provide assistance. However, trained assisters and navigators cannot recommend a specific plan. Anyone who tries to push or manipulate you into picking a specific program should be viewed as illegitimate.
If you think you have been scammed or approached by someone trying to scam you, call the Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808, the Better Business Bureau at 866-228-1820 or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP.
Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia.