With help, Tarrant residents sign up for health insurance

Posted Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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It took more than two months of trying, but 63-year-old retired nurse Jimmie Cheek was finally able to sign up for health insurance.

On Dec. 6, after being unable to get on the federal HealthCare.gov website, she called a healthcare navigator, who helped her search for insurance.

Three days later, she was enrolled and received a $500 subsidy for her plan under the Affordable Care Act.

“I have my insurance card!” the Arlington resident said.

Alyce Jones, an optician in Fort Worth, also needed help. But once she found the right broker, she described her experience as “stress-free.”

Cheek and Jones are among a growing number of Tarrant County residents who are having success shopping on the federal healthcare exchange.

December appeared to mark a turning point for enrollment after fixes were made to the government website, according to local nonprofit groups, some elected officials and a Fort Worth health insurance brokerage firm.

In November, enrollment “picked up a little bit, a drip here and there,” said Darren Nelson, director of Affordable Care Connections for American Health Underwriters in Fort Worth, which is paid a fee by insurance companies to enroll consumers at no charge.

“But we didn’t see the momentum of policies that are getting through the system” now, Nelson said.

In December alone, American Health Underwriters completed an estimated 400 policies for customers who tapped into the Affordable Care Act, Nelson said.

Of those, about 50 were written by brokers at the firm’s Fort Worth office. Nationally, more than 1 million people have signed up through the federal exchange, The Associated Press has reported.

Local nonprofits are also receiving a growing number of inquiries from consumers about the law. In coming months, federally funded navigators working through the United Way are expected to be available to help the public at local libraries. The Arlington Life Shelter is also scheduling a visit from healthcare navigators, officials said.

Mandi Battaglia Seiler, who supervises nine full-time staffers at the national information center of the American Cancer Society in Austin, said callers want to know how the law affects them and whether they need to obtain coverage.

Three-quarters of the estimated 300 daily phone inquiries to the center are from consumers wanting to know whether they can receive a subsidy and seeking information on the cost of plans, Battaglia Seiler said.

The American Cancer Society’s goal is to help people learn more about the healthcare act, said Allen Henderson, a member of the society’s national board.

“Our role is to advocate for cancer patients and people who don’t have insurance who need to be covered if something happens,” he said.

The law eliminates restrictions in previous policies, including lifetime dollar limits on benefits, which could halt coverage for people when they need it most, Henderson said.

“Now their insurance can’t be dropped or canceled on them,” said Henderson, who is also provost at Texas Wesleyan University.

‘That was stress-free’

Jones tried to sign up on the healthcare site in November. After two weeks, she said, she stopped trying.

“I couldn’t get service going online,” she said.

Then one of her customers, who happens to be marketing director at a health brokerage firm, recommended that she seek help at the firm’s offices.

She said she was signed up shortly afterward and was pleased that the service didn’t cost her anything.

The “broker presented the different costs and then I made a decision,” Jones said. “That was stress-free.”

She had a problem recently when her pharmacy couldn’t validate her insurance card, she said, and her insurance broker had to call to confirm that she had a policy.

Technical problems within the exchange are creating health insurance “orphans,” or customers for whom the government has a record but the insurer does not, The Associated Press reported this week.

“Even people who are able to get through the website, there are still problems,” Nelson said. “Are they getting better? I hope they will. Still, right now, we do a lot of behind-the-scenes work the customer never sees.”

Affordable options

Jones said she is paying about $850 a month for a “gold” insurance plan that covers her medications and office visits. The plan has a deductible of about $3,000, Nelson said.

The act allows consumers to select different levels of coverage, such as “bronze,” “silver” or “gold,” that also carry different tiers of out-of-pocket expenses.

Although the optician did not qualify for a federal subsidy, others have, said Gary Davis, marketing director for American Health Underwriters.

A subsidy is a tax credit that helps defray the cost of health insurance for an individual or a family, based on annual income. An individual earning as little as $11,490 could qualify for a tax credit under the federal law, and some consumers end up paying very little for their insurance, Davis said.

Cheek said her saga began Oct. 1, the day the website launched. She created a personal account in the hope of shopping for health benefits, but the site kept crashing when she tried to punch in a series of security questions, she said.

Two weeks later, she jumped on again. With a new personal account, she viewed her eligibility results — until she hit a blank page.

For days, she tried to access the site but was bumped off several times each day. Finally, in early December, she contacted a navigator, who helped her enroll on the phone.

Cheek said she got a $500 tax credit, which brought her monthly premium to $354, she said. Her deductible: $6,250 a year, she said. (She has a silver plan.)

Cheek said that she is paying about $100 more a month for health insurance but that the coverage is better, she said.

“It seems pricey,” she said. “But I could not afford to pay $800 a month without the credit.”

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard

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