ACA deadline is fast approaching for Texans

It’s crunch time for the millions of Texans without health care. As this year’s deadline to sign up for the Affordable Care Act arrives on Monday, many experts point to the millions of Latinos in the state who are at risk of being left behind.

Part of the enrollment problem is misinformation. Latinos and other uninsured Texans have to take matters into their own hands and find out if the ACA, also known as Obamacare, will help or hurt them.

A recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index report showed that 15.9 percent of U.S. adults are uninsured so far in 2014, down from 17.1 percent for the last three months of 2013. The results connect the decreasing numbers to the millions who have already enrolled in the ACA. The survey also found that almost every major demographic group made progress getting health insurance, except Latinos. In Texas, those numbers are alarming.

As of March 1, less than 300,000 Texans have enrolled in the ACA marketplace, leaving a lot of people without insurance. In 2012, about 24 percent of the population, or more than 6 million Texans, including more than 852,000 children, lacked health insurance, according to U.S. census data. The Texas Department of Insurance estimates that Hispanics make up roughly 60 percent of our uninsured population.

“The enrollment rate for Hispanic-Americans seems to be very low, and I would be really concerned about that,” Brookings Institution health policy expert Mark McClellan recently told the Associated Press. “It is a large population that has a lot to gain … but they don’t seem to be taking advantage.”

Experts point to several reasons for the lagging rates of Latino enrollment. One of the reasons is a shortage of in-person “culturally sensitive” helpers to guide consumers. Another is fear that applying for health care will bring unwelcome scrutiny from immigration authorities since many Hispanic families have mixed immigration status.

President Barack Obama has assured folks that signing up for health care won’t trigger the deportation of any relatives who are in the country illegally. The law’s benefits, however, are only for citizens and legal residents.

But perhaps another reason for low enrollment numbers is not having all the facts.

Critics of Obamacare have sent a loud message that the program is not affordable. They have pointed to the penalties many will pay for not enrolling. And they say that young people will be hit most with high premiums. Coincidentally, the medium age for Latinos is 27.

These criticisms do not reflect the whole truth.

It is true that an uninsured young person with a good job may now have to pay a premium. It is also true that for many, there are tax credits to help cover the cost of a plan, making it more affordable.

Intense price competition among health plans in the marketplaces have also been helpful in lowering premiums below projected levels, according to the Center for American Progress.

And it is also true that there are penalties for not signing up, but there are exceptions for certain groups of people and those who are experiencing financial hardship.

ACA coverage will allow Texans to focus on preventative care. Those with insurance will be less likely to turn to the emergency room for nonurgent medical attention, which will save taxpayers money.

Yet, the number of Texans that will remain uninsured will be high. Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid or implement a state health insurance exchange under Obamacare made certain of that. By not signing on to an expansion, Perry denied millions of Texans health insurance protection, even for those not living at or below the poverty level. This has to be revisited by the Texas Legislature.

While not much can be done about the Medicaid expansion now, Central Texans with no insurance can take matters in to their own hands. Latinos and other uninsured families have too much to lose if they let ACA enrollment pass them by. Lack of information shouldn’t be the reason to miss out on health care coverage. Those who start their application before or on Monday will be given the opportunity for an extension until mid-April. The time to sign up is now.

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