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Consumer Alert: New Health Care Markets On The Way

But what's starting to dawn on Obama administration officials, activists, and important players in the health care industry is that the lack of consumer involvement, unless reversed, could turn the big health care launch into a dud. What if Obama cut the ribbon and nobody cared?

"The people who stand to benefit the most are the least aware of the changes that are coming," said Rachel Klein, executive director of Enroll America, a nonprofit that's trying to generate consumer enthusiasm.

"My biggest fear is that we get to Oct. 1 and people haven't heard there is help coming, and they won't benefit from it as soon as they can," she added. "I think it is a realistic fear."

Even the term "exchange" could be a stumbling block. It was invented by policy nerds. Although the law calls them "American Health Benefit Exchanges," Sebelius is starting to use the term "marketplaces" instead.

Polls underscore the concerns. A national survey last October found that only 37 percent of the uninsured said they would personally be better off because of the health care law. Twenty-three percent said they would be worse off in the Kaiser poll, while 31 percent said it would make no difference to them.

Insurers, hospitals, drug companies and other businesses that stand to benefit from the hundreds of billions of dollars the government will pump in to subsidize coverage aren't waiting for Washington to educate the public.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, for example, are trying to carve out a new role for themselves as explainers of the exchanges. Somewhere around 12 million people now purchase coverage individually, but the size of the market could double or triple with the new approach, and taxpayers will underwrite it.

"Consumers are expecting their health insurance provider to be a helpful navigator to them," said Maureen Sullivan, a senior vice president for the Blues' national association. "We see 2013 as a huge year for education."

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