|McALLEN, March 26 - Demand by applicants wishing to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act is so great in the Rio Grande Valley that a call has gone out for more navigators.
On Tuesday, the Obama Administration recognized the late surge in applications by announcing it was extending the deadline for people to sign up from March 31 to mid-April. However, in order to benefit from this extension period applicants must still have started the process of signing up by March 31.
Demand is particularly great in the Valley, which has one of the highest rates of uninsured in the nation. All week at McAllen Public Library, navigators have been telling walk-in applicants that they cannot help them select a health plan until Friday. This is because a huge backlog of applications was created at an enrollment fair hosted by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa at the McAllen Convention Center last Thursday and Friday.
“We cannot see anyone before Friday because we are taking appointments made at last week’s enrollment fair. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we will see walk-in applicants again,” said a navigator with Cognoscante who did not want to be named. Asked what could be done to speed up the process, the navigator said: “We need more navigators. If there are any qualified navigators from other parts of Texas that come down here, we can put them to work.”
Mimi Garcia, Texas state director for Get Covered America, said other parts of Texas are also experiencing great demand and so the chances of more navigators coming to the Valley appear slim. There were additional navigators at the McAllen Convention Center last Thursday and Friday. They came in from Austin and San Antonio.
“There is high demand in the Valley, there is high demand in Dallas, in Houston and Austin and West Texas. We knew that there was always going to be a slow start to enrollment and then a build. We anticipated the last week would be incredibly busy. The turnout is probably going to be even more than we could have imagined. People are realizing the deadline is upon them,” Garcia said.
Garcia said it is “very clear” that Texans want healthcare coverage. The Lone Star State is No. 1 for uninsured citizens. “Groups like Get Covered America, Texas Organizing Project, Planned Parenthood, the community health centers and the hospitals have done a fantastic job in getting the word out about the last days of enrollment. It takes a deadline for people to take action sometimes. It is like the long line at the Post Office on April 14 to file tax returns,” Garcia said.
Christine Sinatra, who is handling public relations for Get Covered America, provided the Guardian with some last minute advice for would-be applicants.
“There are several things consumers can do to expedite the enrollment process. One tip is to be sure to have an email address before you arrive. Setting up a free email account can be done from anywhere with internet access, such as at a local library. Other ‘homework’ that health care enrollment advocates recommend tackling before you arrive is setting up an account at HealthCare.gov, which is an essential first step before selecting a health plan,” Sinatra said.
“Some of the information asked for during enrollment is proof of citizenship or legal residency for all members of the family enrolling (e.g., social security numbers for adults and children, immigration documents, passports, and driver’s license), and proof of address (e.g., residential lease or utility bill); and proof of household income (e.g., W2, paycheck stub, or tax return). It’s a good idea to bring these items with you to the enrollment site as well, so these things are on hand when you meet with a navigator or other expert to get your questions answered.”
Sinatra added that if applicants want to get a sense for some of the plans they will have to choose from during enrollment, they can use the ‘window shopping’ feature at HealthCare.gov: https://www.healthcare.gov/find-premium-estimates/
“For example, a 35-year-old in Cameron County earning $20,000 a year can enter that information in that page to begin browsing some of the 46 health plans available locally, with out-of-pocket costs for as low as $28 a month for that individual. This individual will also be informed that, if she is pregnant, she may qualify for Medicaid coverage with no out-of-pocket costs,” Sinatra said.
Last week, Jose Medrano, field organizer for Get Covered America in the Valley, described the 11th hour interest in signing up for health insurance under ACA, as a “tidal wave.” Now, he said, interest is even greater. “It is no longer a tidal wave. It is a tsunami,” Medrano said.
Medrano said there are about 100 navigators working in the Valley. Of these, about half are connected to a community clinic or hospital while the rest are “floaters” that are attached to contractor groups such MHP, VAIL McAllen or Cognoscante. These are usually available to go to different enrollment events. “It leaves very few to go to additional events. We cannot afford to create any more events because everybody is stretched thin,” Medrano said.
The fact that the Valley is now fully aware of the March 31 deadline means groups like Get Covered America have done their job, Medrano said. “Our job has been to drive people to enrollment events and to navigator locations. We obviously have done that very well. We did what we were supposed to do. We put the outcry out there, we had the education events. We are driving people to the website and to the enrollment events.”
Medrano added that if any navigators do come down to the Valley, they need to be able to speak Spanish as well as English. “There is an overwhelming demand. It is all hands on deck,” he added.
On Monday, Congressman Hinojosa issued this information to help applicants apply for health insurance under ACA:
• Online: Visit healthcare.gov which is available 24/7.
• By phone: Call the Toll-Free Consumer Call Center at 1-800-318-2596 which is open 24/7.
• In person: Go to https://localhelp.healthcare.gov and type in your zip code to find the Navigators and certified enrollment counselors in your area. You may also go to any Community Health Center in your area to obtain assistance in applying for coverage.
• By mail: You may download a paper application form along with the instructions from healthcare.gov. After receiving an eligibility notice, you may finish the application online or by contacting the call center.
For additional information on how to enroll, Hinojosa said, applicants should visit healthcare.gov.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said it is not surprising the South Texas border region is embracing Obamacare. He pointed out that his congressional district has a huge number of uninsured residents. He said the uninsured percentage is 35 overall, with Hidalgo County’s percentage standing at 38.9 and Webb County’s at 36.4.
“I have been pushing very hard to get people signed up for healthcare. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act they will no longer need to go to the emergency room to get primary care,” Cuellar said. “I urge residents not to wait until the last minute.”
Asked about the 11th hour surge in the Valley, Cuellar said: “It is what it is. We all have a tendency to wait until the last minute. The same thing happened in Massachusetts, when they introduced health coverage there. We have to deal with it. We are going to do as much as we can to get more people covered. Unfortunately, we cannot find the money to hire any more navigators at the end. There are different ways to get insurance. You can go online. You can do it by phone. You can do it in person or by mail. I urge folks to look at all the options to try to beat the deadline.”