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SAN JUAN, RGV – There has been a lot less media coverage of the Affordable Care Act open enrollment period in the Rio Grande Valley this year but navigator groups still expect to sign up more people.

This is the view of Jaime Cantu, South Texas regional manager for Cognosante, one of the healthcare groups in the Enroll RGV coalition.

“We think we will sign up just as many people with a lot less media coverage,” Cantu said, while supervising an ACA enrollment fair at the La Unión del Pueblo Entero offices in San Juan on Saturday.

“We have seen just about the same amount of attendees as last year it is just that it is more spread out. Last year things were consolidated into a few locations and there was a huge push towards the end of the enrollment period. Now it is more spread out. And, we have increased our staff size, tripling the size of last year because we do not want to turn anybody away.”

According to reports, enrollment numbers are higher in Texas this period. As of Jan. 9, almost 860,000 Texans had signed up for a plan on the marketplace. This is 100,000 more people than in 2013-14. Cantu said he believes the same trend will hold true in the Valley and across the border region. Cantu’s responsibilities include the El Paso region, which, he says, is on a par with the Valley for enrollment. Cantu also manages New Orleans for Cognosante. “That is very different from El Paso and the Valley,” he said.

Cantu said partnering with Valley groups like LUPE to put on ACA enrollment fairs was paying big dividends. There was a steady stream of visitors all day. To accommodate those waiting in line to see a navigator, LUPE provided pizza and refreshments.

“It really is a team effort. We are part of the Enroll RGV coalition and we are working with so many different agencies that are in the area to share the same goal, which is to educate and enroll the public,” Cantu said. “We have set up in different locations around the Valley and we are mobile, we are able to go wherever we are needed.”

Cantu said his group will see those who make an appointment and those who walk in looking for insurance. Cognosante’s address in the Upper Valley is 3400 N. McColl Rd., Suite #1, McAllen and its telephone number is 956-340-4694. Cantu said those interested in securing health insurance can find more information by visiting this website: http://www.enrollhealthplan.com/mcallen.html. “Appointments can be made online,” Cantu added.

When the first open enrollment period for ACA started in 2013, navigator groups wanted to make a big impression in the Rio Grande Valley because it had a large percentage of uninsured residents. While Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country – one in four Texans has no health coverage – in the Valley the rate is even higher, at about 38 percent.

Another partner in the enrollment fair in San Juan was the office of Congressman Filemon Vela. The congressman himself was on hand to say a “big thank you” to the health insurance navigators. Asked why he was promoting enrollment, Vela said: “The most promising thing about the Affordable Care Act that nobody can deny is that people who have never had health insurance can now get it and pay for it themselves. The more people that we empower to do that, it is fulfilling for them, ensures them a healthier life and it is good for everybody else when people are taking care of their own health insurance.”

Vela held a similar enrollment fair at the Weslaco Visitors Center last month. Next weekend he will hold similar events in the northern part of Congressional District 34.

“Next Friday we will be in Kingsville and Alice and on Saturday we will be in Mathis and Beeville. In the northern portion of my district, the community health centers, the Head Start programs, they are all essentially run by the Community Action Network out of Alice. They do a great job and cover multiple counties. We will also use the events as mini vet summits. In Mathis, we are using an elementary school as a community health center,” Vela said.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 1 million uninsured Texans fall into the so-called “black hole” or “coverage gap.” This is a situation where someone earns too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for tax credits to purchase coverage through the ACA health insurance marketplaces. The hole or gap would have been filled had Texas agreed to expand Medicaid eligibility.

“It is something we are going to have to address,” Vela said, referring to the coverage gap. “It is like what I told a group of students yesterday: one thing I have learned in Congress is that there are not too many issues that are cut and dried. There always appears to be a matter of degree. I have also learned that you have to remain very flexible. You never know what the context is of a vote you are going to be taking until, like they say, the fat lady sings.”