Friday, December 13, 2013

State launches outreach on big issues

By Jamey Dunn

The state of Illinois is trying to compete with the glittery distraction of the holiday season to inform residents about  the impending implementation of concealed carry, a medical marijuana pilot program and insurance coverage.

The state will not begin accepting concealed carry permit applications until January 5, but the Illinois State Police launched a website this week that is meant to allow applicants to get a jump start on the process. The website gives applicants a checklist of what they will need to apply and directs them to a page where they can get an Illinois Digital ID, which is required for online application. It also provides information on how to obtain electronic fingerprints, which the state police say would expedite the process for applicants.

But not everyone is happy with the state’s high-tech approach to the process. A spokeswoman for the state police said the agency plans to only offer online applications for the “initial phase” of implementing concealed carry. She said that the online system would allow the state to meet the deadlines that are set out in the law. “We are also sensitive the needs of those applicants who may not have the ability to apply online, and we will need to further explore those options as the process moves forward,” Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the state police, said in an email. Among supporters of the new law there is concern about access for those seeking licenses and skepticism that the site will be able to handle a potentially large number of applicants. They point to issues with the online setup — for instance, the page used to issue digital IDs does not work with some popular Internet browsers. (When I tried to access it using Google Chrome, I received an error message that directed me to use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.)

Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored the new law that will allow for the carry of concealed firearms in the state, said an online only permitting process was never his intent. Phelps said that he has been encouraging people to apply online because he believes that the process will be faster than paper applications. “You’re taking a chance by filing on paper [that] it may take you longer.” But he said that a paper option needs to exist, too. “There are people in this state that do not have access and the resources to do everything electronically.” Phelps said he hopes that the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will resolve the issue at their meeting, which is scheduled for next week. He wants people to have the option to mail in applications when the state begins accepting them on January 5.

The state also launched a website to inform Illinoisans about the new medical marijuana pilot program. The new law goes into effect on January 1, but the Illinois Department of Public Health has not yet released a date on which it will begin issuing permits to patients. The homepage of the site says: “Members of the public should be aware that full implementation of MCPP will take time. The State of Illinois is warning that it will not be legal for anyone to grow, offer to provide, or to possess, medical cannabis until licenses have been issued and the program is up and running.” In the meantime, visitors to the website can find information about the program and sign up for email alerts.

In addition to both of those efforts, Illinois is kicking off its television advertising campaign to encourage residents to visit the state’s online insurance exchange and purchase coverage. “Now that the federal website has improved, we are shifting from educating consumers to the next phase of encouraging enrollment. We are urging thousands of uninsured residents in Illinois to get covered in this new state of health care that we are entering in 2014,” Jennifer Koehler, Executive Director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “If you visited before but didn’t select a plan, come back and try again. With the upgrades to the federal website that were recently put in place, the enrollment system is working much more smoothly. Now is the time to select a plan and get covered.”

The federal online exchange has come under fire for serious glitches. Illinois’ exchange is tied to the federal website, so it has experienced issues as well.

A news release issued by the state’s online marketplace described the advertising campaign: “The nearly $1-million TV ad buy includes the eight major-media markets in Illinois, and is targeted to reach Illinois’ uninsured population. The campaign features one 30-second ad that highlights the all-inclusive nature of the new state of health care across Illinois; and two 15-second spots: one that highlights the fact that insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and one that features a mom-to-be.” The campaign, along with 300 events planned statewide, is meant to encourage people to sign up for insurance before the December 23 deadline. People who sign up by that date and pay a premium by December 31 will see their coverage start on January 1. Open enrollment on the exchange will continue through March 31.

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