Saying a bigger push is needed to sign up people for health insurance, Central Health will spend $350,000 on a media campaign, bringing its total spending on “Obamacare” coverage efforts in Travis County to $1.1 million.
Although enrollment data aren’t available locally or nationally, reports by enrollment aides and others show that sign-ups on the federally created health insurance marketplace, or exchange, have been painstakingly slow in Texas and other states. For example, just two people have successfully signed up for coverage with Sendero Health Plans, which Central Health created, said Michelle Tijerina, the navigation manager for Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district.
Severe technical problems with the enrollment website at www.healthcare.gov are cited as the major reason. Also, many people could be waiting because they have until Dec. 15 to get coverage that will start Jan. 1.
In Tarrant County, enrollment helpers with United Way have resorted to using paper applications that may take up to 10 weeks to process, said Tim McKinney, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County. The website is functioning a bit better this week, McKinney said, so the group also is encouraging people to try again with the online applications.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has declined to release enrollment figures, but a report by Millward Brown Digital says that less than 1 percent of the 9.47 million people who visited the site the first week successfully enrolled.
“It’s still quite early. We have a lot of people who wait, because they’ve got to put out money for the premiums,” Central Health Chairwoman Rosie Mendoza said.
The media campaign was Mendoza’s idea. It’s needed because Central Texas didn’t win a federal grant to spread awareness and direct people to coverage, said Christie Garbe, Central Health’s vice president for planning and communications. The community looked to Central Health to fill that void, board member Lynne Hudson said.
“Without us, there is not a good, local clearinghouse … of objective material about the exchange,” Hudson said.
The campaign could include public service announcements on TV and radio; print media notices, including in non-English publications; brochures to hand out at community events; mobile apps targeting younger residents; and online information.
Central Health will wait for the federal website’s problems to resolve before launching the campaign, possibly from mid-November until the initial enrollment period closes March 31.
Last month, the board allocated $300,000 in public dollars to United Way for Greater Austin and three local organizations helping with public education and enrollment. An additional $472,000 went to Sendero to enroll people in its plan.
A U.S. citizen who earns between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, a range of $11,490 to $45,960, can be eligible for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace. Eighty plans are being offered in Travis County — more than in any other Texas county.
Although a new estimate shows that 89,000 Travis County residents are eligible for subsidies, Central Health’s campaign will focus mainly on 35,000 people whose incomes fall between 138 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Garbe said.
“Our goal is to raise awareness and spur low-income Travis County residents to enroll in the marketplace in order to better ensure access to health care and wellness services,” she said. “For each individual we are now serving with local tax dollars, enrollment into a plan through the exchange lessens the local burden and provides a full range of covered services.”
The campaign will direct people to United Way’s 211 telephone help line for information and assistance locations, in addition to the federal website.
Central Health will coordinate the campaign with the organizations it funded previously, Garbe said. One of those groups is Foundation Communities, an Austin nonprofit that is using trained volunteers to help sign up people for the marketplace.
“I’m excited they are investing some more money on media,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities. “The timing is good.”
He was surprised to hear about the campaign on Thursday but agrees that the blitz needs to be timed to spread the word when the government website is more glitch-free.
That was hardly the case Friday when Tina Ruiz, 46, of Austin tried to enroll at the in-person assistance center at Highland Mall manned by Foundation Communities’ Insure Central Texas program’s staff and trained volunteers.
Ruiz, on her second visit to the site, will have to return a third time.
She started working on the application with assistance from Glirsa “Gigi” Veliz at 11 a.m. Although they could access the site, unlike last week, it was moving so slowly that Ruiz wasn’t nearly done by the time she had to leave at 12:30 p.m.
“I have things to do,” said Ruiz, who owns a small tire repair business and a rental property. She was trying to enroll herself, her husband and two adult children in the exchange. She said they all are healthy and do fine without insurance, but they don’t want to pay a penalty for being uninsured — a key part of the law.
Ruiz agreed to return in two weeks to finish the application.
“This is the worst part,” Veliz said, as the “please wait” message appeared again on the website. “People have time but not all day.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Moreau said. Since Oct. 1, more than 600 people have come through the organization’s two in-person assistance locations at the mall and at 2600 W. Stassney Lane, but “less than 10 have actually paid money and enrolled,” said Elizabeth Colvin, director of Insure Central Texas.
“We are still encouraging people to come in,” Colvin said. “It’s a process.”
HEALTH CARE IN-DEPTH
This is one in a series of articles on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Central Texas. See more Statesman coverage of the coming health care changes online at statesman.com/healthcare.
CALCULATE THE COSTS
To use a calculator (courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation) that illustrates health insurance premiums and subsidies for people purchasing insurance through the new health care marketplace, see statesman.com/healthcare.
TO FIND MORE HELP
Health insurance marketplace national toll-free number, 800-318-2596.
In Central Texas, call United Way at 211.
For online enrollment: www.healthcare.gov
For in-person enrollment locations:
* CommUnityCare, 512-978-9015
* Lone Star Circle of Care, 877-800-5722
* Foundation Communities, 211
* Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, 512-255-1720