PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

October 2, 2013

Local center works with slow health care enrollment

Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Though Tuesday was the first day Americans could begin comparison shopping for health insurance under President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, early-bird consumers had to contend with an unexpected cog in the process.

Not congressional Republicans intent on the reforms’ failure, but, rather overloaded websites that prevented consumers from signing up online.

Federal government officials blamed the glitches — delays, drop-down menus not working, etc.  —  on the high volume of interest.

 Some 4.7 million unique visitors logged in to the healthcare.gov website on Tuesday. As new health insurance markets went live around the country, the federal call center also received 190,000 calls, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Locally, people attempting to enroll at The Gulf Coast Health Center in Port Arthur had to contend with website glitches that prevented automated sign-ups.

“It is not going very well. The website is still down, but we are able to assist people manually with paper applications,” Susan Anaya, Gulf Coast Center community health department supervisor, said Wednesday.

Since the enrollment period started, there has been much interest in the process, Anaya said.

The Center’s three certified marketplace navigators — those trained to guide people though the enrollment process — have stayed busy doing just that.

“The calls are coming in and they are scheduling people,” Anaya said. “Most don’t seem to have a good understanding of the reforms when they come in, but when they leave they feel confident about them.”

Sofia Menn, 41, of Port Arthur, was among those scheduling appointments for Wednesday at the Center.

Menn, who speaks little English, said through an interpreter she hoped obtain health coverage for herself and her children.

Menn said she and her family had not previously been insured, though she has received treatment at the Center for diabetes.

“I am excited about what this will offer myself and my children,” she said.

Carl Dahlquist, outreach and enrollment supervisor at the Center, said he and the other certified marketplace navigators had spent much of the time attempting to use the healthcare.gov website, but were unsuccessful.

While in training last week in Austin, navigators were introduced to the website on Friday, and guided through the enrollment process.

“I am not trying to sound negative, but when dealing with the federal government, there are going to be a bunch of glitches, especially for a brand new program such as this,” he said.

Dahlquist attributed the website delays to too many people attempting to  access the system early in the enrollment process.

“They should have expected 20 million people would try to get online all at one time,” Dahlquist said. “If you tell me I am going to get free chicken, don’t tell me I won’t be there early in the morning to get it.”

According to the AP, the Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people during the first year and aims to eventually sign up at least half of the nearly 50 million Americans who are uninsured through an expansion of Medicaid or government-subsidized plans.

Many states predicted that an initial surge of interest would test the online system, but they expect most people to sign up closer to Dec. 15, the deadline for coverage to start Jan. 1. Customers have until the end of March to sign up to avoid tax penalties, the AP reported.

Under the law, health insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to someone with a pre-existing medical condition and cannot impose lifetime caps on coverage. They also must cover a list of essential services, ranging from mental health treatment to maternity care, the AP reported.

E-mail: skoonce@panews.com

Twitter: skooncePANews