|BROWNSVILLE, August 9 - Obamacare officially arrived in South Texas on Thursday with the opening of a new customer care center dedicated to educating residents about and enrolling them in new low cost, high quality, health insurance plans.
The call center is located on Paredes Line Road in Brownsville and is manned by 700 seasonal workers. One of only 17 of its kind across the country, it is being run by General Dynamics Information Technology and Maximus Federal, with funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The advice given by call center workers will be totally impartial and not in favor of one particular insurance company over another. It will be culturally sensitive to Hispanics, say officials.
“Because of the high number of uninsured you have in this community, the South Texas border region is ground zero for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” Jose Luis Velasco, executive director of the U.S. section of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, told the Guardian.
Velasco, who is based in El Paso, was given a guided tour of the new customer care center on Thursday morning, along with Congressman Filemon Vela. Both said they were impressed by the facilities and the professionalism of the staff. They were joined for the official ribbon-cutting by Charlie Cabler, city manager of Brownsville.
“This new center satisfies two very substantial needs,” Vela said, explaining that unemployment is currently running at 11 percent locally. “The addition of 700 new jobs is important,” the congressman said. He also pointed out that the Rio Grande Valley has the highest percentage of uninsured and under-insured in the country. “Given the roll out of the Affordable Care Act through the fall, this facility will be informing the people who have questions of these changes. The call center is going to teach them how to navigate the system,” Vela said.
A new report issued by the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that the Texas-Mexico border region has the highest rates of uninsured individuals under age 65. Six of the top ten counties are along the Texas-Mexico border – Hidalgo at No. 1, Cameron at No. 2, Webb at No. 3 joint, Starr at No. 3 joint, Maverick at No. 9, and El Paso at No. 10. Hidalgo County has 38.1 percent uninsured, Cameron County 37.6, Webb County 36.8, Starr County 35.8, Maverick County 33.9, and El Paso County 32.8, according to the new report.
Velasco said these statistics can change if border residents take advantage of new health coverage programs available through the new Health Insurance Marketplace. “Establishing and operating this 24 hour, seven day a week, told-free call center will help ensure customers have the information they need about the Marketplace to get assistance in applying and enrolling in new coverage options,” Velasco said.
From now until October 1, the call center workers will help educate the public on the coverage plans available, Velasco said. After October 1, they will help educate and enroll. He promised that residents with pre-existing conditions would not be denied health insurance and that there would be no discrimination based on gender. Some preventative checkups will be free, he said. The toll-free number is 1-800-318-2596.
Velasco, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, said he will be organizing many training sessions on the Affordable Care Act for different constituencies in South Texas in the coming months. “In order to have a successful roll out, we realize the need to partner with the community and the media. We plan to do that,” he said.
At the same time the new customer service center was being opened in Brownsville, U.S. Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius was promoting the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in Austin. Gov. Rick Perry criticized the visit. “It’s not that Americans don’t understand Obamacare, it’s that we understand it all too well. In Texas, we’ve been fighting Obamacare from the beginning, refusing to expand a broken Medicaid system and declining to set up a state health insurance exchange. We took these steps to minimize the damage Obamacare will cause to our economy and state budget, although we’re all too aware Obamacare will still cause our state immense budgetary challenges in the years ahead, just like it will to families and small businesses across our country,” Perry said.
At the same time as Sebelius was in Austin, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is running for governor, was at a separate event in Austin telling an audience that Obamacare is going to be really bad for small businesses. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been urging Republican colleagues in Congress to de-fund Obamacare.
Vela, D-Brownsville, said he does not see his job as countering those politicians who are opposed to Obamacare and may be spreading misinformation about the program. “You cannot pay too much attention to political rhetoric that comes from the extreme. I prefer to take a practical approach. We have provisions of the Affordable Care Act that are about to take effect. My role is to make sure that I understand it, which we are working on, and the people I represent understand it,” Vela said.
Vela told the Guardian he will be holding a series of meetings with various chambers of commerce in his district in the coming months to explain what the Affordable Care Act will mean for small businesses. The first of these will take place in Raymondville on Aug. 17, he said.
“The new provisions are coming whether some people like it or not. I view my role as making sure people know what the impact of the health care act is and how they are going to be able to navigate the system,” Vela added.