McALLEN, RGV – The demand to secure healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act is huge in the Rio Grande Valley, which is understandable given that 40 percent of the population goes without insurance.

That demand was there for all to see at the McAllen Convention Center on Thursday as hundreds of people waited patiently in line to visit with a health insurance navigator. The enrollment fair had drawn over 300 people by 10 a.m., organizers said, and over 850 had visited the center by the close of day.

“It does not surprise me, how many people are here. We knew there was going to be a tidal wave here at the end and that tidal wave has arrived,” said Jose Medrano, RGV field organizer for Get Covered America. Medrano said 30-plus navigators were on hand to assist with enrollment questions, some being brought in from Austin and San Antonio to cope with demand. He said enrollees should expect to wait three hours or more to get seen. For those who could not wait that long, the opportunity existed for them to sign up for assistance and return Friday, when they would be able to jump front of the line.

The two-day enrollment fair has been organized by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, who hired two additional staff members earlier this year to work on ACA activities. Hinojosa paid tribute to Valley media outlets, particularly the Spanish-language ones, for helping to get the word out about the March 31 sign up deadline. Thanks to presenter Brenda Lee Huerta, Univision Radio is promoting the enrollment fair every half hour. On Wednesday evening, KGBT-TV Action 4 News held an ACA phone bank with Hinojosa.

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa is interviewed by a reporter while hundreds of people wait to sign up for health insurance at the McAllen Convention Center.
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa is interviewed by a reporter while hundreds of people wait to sign up for health insurance at the McAllen Convention Center.

“The demand for health insurance in the Valley is huge and this enrollment fair has been the biggest and the best of the eight we have held,” Hinojosa told the Guardian. “We had 300 to 400 people here by 10 a.m. and we expect as many as 1,000 by the end of the day. I want to thank my staff and all the healthcare groups and navigators for making this event a great success.”

Later in the day, Hinojosa was due to visit Alamo Parental Literacy Multipurpose Center for an ACA enrollment event with PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel King. “I am urging everyone who is lacking health insurance to come to this event. If you do not sign up you could be subject to a penalty of $95 for an adult and $37.50 for a child. But if you come along and try to enroll, if show intent, you can avoid having to pay a fine,” Hinojosa said.

Lack of health insurance hits Latinos the hardest. According to the Pew Research Institute, more than one-fourth of Hispanic adults in the United States lack a usual health care provider, and a similar proportion report obtaining no health care information from medical personnel in the past year. n Texas, Latinos comprise 40 percent of the total population, yet make up 60 percent of the uninsured population. Hinojosa said in his meetings with constituents, healthcare is the No. 2 issue among Latinos.

“There are four top issues for the Latino population. The first is jobs. The second is healthcare. The third is education and the fourth is immigration reform,” Hinojosa said. Of these four, health care is the most costly, the veteran congressman said. “In areas where large numbers live below the national poverty level of $15,500 per family, such as the Rio Grande Valley, it is a real sacrifice for families to buy health insurance. But, it is worse if they don’t and in some cases they can lose one of their children or maybe a spouse.”

According to navigator groups, thousands of Valley residents have tried to sign up for health insurance under ACA but have been turned away because they are in the so-called “coverage gap.” In other words, they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for a big government subsidy under ACA. When ACA was being developed, the thought was that this portion of the population would be covered through the expansion of Medicaid. The federal government made it financially attractive for states to expand Medicaid but some, including Texas, declined to do so.

According to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit which wants to see improvements in health care accessibility and affordability, Texas could refuse $9.6 billion of federal Medicaid matching funds by 2022.

“Because of the neglect by Governor Rick Perry we are going to lose billions of dollars over the next ten years that could have been used to expand Medicaid. Governor Perry has just absolutely denied the State of Texas that opportunity. How shameful that he would do that to his fellow Texans. We could have used that money to expand Medicaid to make it possible for so many more people to get healthcare coverage,” Hinojosa said.

Perry disputes this. He has predicted the federal government will have to roll back its pledge to pay the lion’s share of expanded Medicaid, partly because of federal budget cuts and partly because ACA will not enroll enough young people to make it sustainable.

“The math gets worse heading into the new year. Starting in 2014, up to 80 million Americans might lose their employee-sponsored policies because those policies don’t comply with Obamacare specifications. And those fortunate enough to keep coverage will still face a host of health care taxes, fees, premium increases and increased out-of-pocket costs,” Perry said in January.

Meanwhile, navigator groups in the Valley continue to work hard to get everyone who wants coverage signed up before the March 31 deadline. Get Covered America’s Medrano said the Mexican Consulate’s Office in Brownsville will be hosting an ACA enrollment fair next Tuesday, March 25.