Lots of ways to get help with health insurance before Obamacare deadline

03/07/2014 11:18 AM

03/07/2014 3:38 PM

Uninsured Texans have been slow to enroll in the new healthcare marketplace — especially those who qualify for the tax credits to help pay for a plan.

As of Feb. 1, around 207,000 Texans have signed up for health insurance through the marketplace, despite some 6.4 million who were uninsured in the state before the Affordable Care Act was put into place. Consumers Union found that just 8 percent of Texans who qualify for credits have signed up for insurance using the federal marketplace website, healthcare.gov, which has been plagued by technical problems.

But insurance agents are working weekends at flea markets and grocery stores across the state to enroll people, while local nonprofit navigators are holding sign-up events on campuses, in libraries and churches during the final month of open enrollment for the new insurance.

“There is a huge push for the March 31 deadline,” said Derek Berger, an independent insurance agent in Austin and part of Agents in Action, a national group of insurance agents specializing in the low-income, uninsured population in the Hispanic community. “We have bilingual agents at all the major flea markets in the state, swap meats, Hispanic markets. We do home visits or help people sign up on our toll-free line. We walk neighborhoods educating people about the plans.”

Tim McKinney, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County, said the agency has a number of enrollment events this month, including one Saturday at Tarrant County College’s downtown campus with the Hispanic Wellness Coalition. Two more enrollment events are planned at the TCC campus on March 15 and 22. United Way of Tarrant County received a federal grant of $5.9 million to hire and oversee 75 “navigators” throughout the state, who are helping people sign up.

“One of the things we’re finding with one-on-one meetings it that the uninsured are not inclined to enroll at that minute,” he said. “We educate them, then they want to go back home and study it and sign up themselves.”

The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, offers a sliding scale of subsidies in the form of tax credits to consumers who make between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or between $23,550 and $94,200 for a family of four. The tax credit is passed through to insurance companies to offset monthly premiums.

But Texas is one of ten states where less than nine percent of those who qualify for a tax credit have signed up for coverage, according to Consumers Union. In contrast, 37 percent of those who qualify in Vermont have bought new insurance through the exchange and 35 percent of Californians have.

“That confirms the polling data we’ve been doing,” said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “People in the uninsured population who could benefit from the tax credit are not aware of the financial aid or that the deadline is March 31.”

One particularly large group in Texas that could use the new health insurance marketplace and tax credit help is the Hispanic community, Pogue said.

A study by CPPP shows that while Hispanics make up 40 percent of the Texas population, they represent 61 percent of the uninsured in the state. In contrast, African Americans make up 11 percent of the population and just 5 percent of the uninsured.

About 45 percent of the Hispanic population in Tarrant County does not have health insurance, according to an annual survey conducted at the Hispanic Wellness Coalition health fair in August, said Gloria Martinez, executive director of the organization.

“They feel like they don’t have to sign up,” she said. “Unless you tell them about the tax penalty, then they go ‘What?’”

If you don’t have insurance coverage by March 31, you will pay a penalty on next year’s taxes of $95 per adult over age 18 and $47.50 per dependent child up to age 18, with the total not to exceed 1 percent of your taxable income. The penalty will climb to $325 per adult and up to 2 percent of income in 2015 and $695 per adult and $347 per child or 2.5 percent of income in 2016.

Agents in Action has insurance agents targeting the Hispanic community in Houston, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio, but not yet the DFW area, said Berger.

But once agents realize the ease of collecting commissions from insurance companies by signing up customers who were previously uninsured, more agents may jump on board.

“The closing ratios are a lot better than normal during this open enrollment period,” he said. “The major thing we do is educate our clients. Some plans are under $100 a month with a deductible under $2,000. That was simply unheard of before. It truly is affordable.”

After this month, the open enrollment period in the marketplace will begin again Nov. 15 for plans starting Jan. 1, 2015.

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