Fort Worth

March 31, 2014

Local insurance helpers face wave of procrastinators

“It’s human nature to wait for deadlines,” a policy analyst said as a flood of people trying to sign up for health insurance slows down the computer process.

Until a week ago, everything was working fine, and agents were signing up people up for health insurance mandated by the Affordable Care Act, said Gary Davis, marketing director at American Health Underwriters, a group of licensed agents who help people and companies with insurance needs.

Then things began slowing down, Davis said Monday. What took 30 minutes in early March began to take an hour, Davis said.

On Monday, the deadline day to sign up for insurance before penalties kick in, the federal government’s phone number and website for health insurance funneled people to a message: “Try again later.”

“Everything is down,” Davis said about 2:30 p.m. in his downtown Fort Worth office. “We’re creating accounts, but we can’t finish the applications.”

His agents had seen between eight and 15 clients each, and all were having the same problem, he said

The U.S. Health and Human Services, overseer of the historic healthcare venture, said anyone who tried to sign up but couldn’t has until April 15 to complete an application, Davis said. They’ll have to prove that they tried before the deadline and been blocked, and there’s the rub, Davis said: How can they prove it?

What might constitute proof was anyone’s guess, Davis said.

The Health and Human Services website showed people this message at 3:30 p.m.: “We know many of you are working hard to finish enrolling in a health plan. Sometimes despite your best efforts, you may run into delays caused by heavy traffic to or our call center, maintenance periods, or other special situations that are preventing you from finishing the process on time. Don’t worry, if you’re still trying to get signed up by the end of today, we’ll make sure you still get covered.”

But, Davis said, he had no idea what people should do in the interim.

Tim McKinney, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Tarrant County, said people have known about the deadline for the past six months and had ample opportunities and multiple ways to enroll.

The United Way received a federal grant to be the lead organization in creating a local network of healthcare insurance navigators who were to help consumers sign up. But the federal government’s websites did not begin working correctly until late last year, and because of Texas state officials’ opposition to the entire plan, the Texas Department of Insurance did not issue final rules for healthcare navigators until January.

Area navigators had only 30,000 one-on-one visits with consumers, and expected to increase that number by 1,000 by the end of today, McKinney said.

The original goal was 55,000 one-on-one visits, McKinney said.

McKinney said he was sorry that people who tried to enroll today ran into obstacles, but said, “perhaps they should have tried to enroll sooner.”

JPS Health Network officials said more than 1,000 people made contact today concerning insurance enrollment questions.

According to polling data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, six of 10 people who did not have insurance on March 15 were unaware of the March 31 deadline and about half of those planned to remain uninsured.

Four of 10 people who were uninsured were unaware of the program’s subsidies that would help pay their health insurance premiums and half of the people who were polled did not know the law’s provision for the expansion of Medicaid, according to the Kaiser website.

“It’s a totally new process and people are still learning,” said Stacey Pogue, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based advocacy group for low-income Texans.

“It’s human nature to wait for deadlines. They are motivating factors. It’s the reason that some post offices stay open until midnight on April 15.”

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