Tarrant residents hurry up and wait for insurance exchange

Flora Brewer and Adri Smith joined what by all reports was a flood of Americans to the federal government’s health insurance exchanges, which opened Tuesday.

And they had about the same results as most trying to use the online site: They couldn’t get through to the Health Insurance Marketplace, the formal name of the exchange, at

“I tried repeatedly, but the whole system is just overwhelmed,” said Brewer, who runs a Fort Worth real estate company and currently has an insurance policy that she continued after leaving her previous employer. “I’ve been involved with the implementation of new software systems, and this is not unusual.”

Smith had already created a user account and password on the site, so all she needed now was to see the health plans and premium costs available on the exchange, a centerpiece of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But when she went to the online site, she had her own glitch: She forgot her password.

“I tried to get on using the online chat help, but they said they were pretty busy,” said Smith. “Maybe that’s a good thing” if the program is attracting so much attention, she said.

Like Brewer, Smith said she’ll keep trying.

Americans have until March 31, 2014, to purchase a policy using the exchanges, which are either run by the states or the federal government. The earliest that coverage can begin is Jan. 1, and a policy must be purchased by Dec. 15 for coverage to take effect that day.

There is also a toll-free number: 1-800-318-2596.

Texas is one of 36 states that relied on the federal government to set up its online market place, known as a health care exchange, for consumers to compare and buy health insurance. Texas lawmakers also chose not to expand Medicaid as part of Obama’s law, so more than a million Texas residents living in poverty will not qualify for free or subsidized coverage. In Texas, Medicaid goes only to children, the disabled and impoverished senior citizens.

United Way of Tarrant County is leading a statewide consortium that is dispatching trained “navigators” in Tarrant County and elsewhere to help individuals use the exchange. It expects to offer some community meetings next week aimed at helping consumers use the exchange, but this week is focusing on working one-on-one with individuals, said Tim McKinney, president of the local United Way.

To schedule an appointment with a navigator, go to the United Way’s website at, click on “Get Help” and then click on “ Get health insurance” under “Other Options.”

United Way’s consortium received a $5.9 million federal grant to hire and manage 75 navigators. As of last week, 185 individuals had either received a certification number that enabled navigator training or had completed navigator training, McKinney said on a conference call Monday with state and federal officials. He added that most of the organizations in the consortium already have additional staff certified as health plan counselors with the Texas Department of Insurance.

JPS Health Network has applied for federal status as a certified application counselor and is awaiting a response, a spokeswoman said. The plan is to help patients determine their eligibility for premium subsidies and coverage.

With the insurance exchange frozen most of the day, information on health insurance policies and rates for Texans was difficult to come by. In Austin, Texas Department of Insurance representatives said the agency was not involved with the exchange and referred all questions to federal officials.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, the state’s largest seller of health insurance policies in the individual and small group markets, is offering policies through the exchange, the Irving-based company said. According to its internal comparison site, a couple aged 51 and 49 earning $30,000 annually could qualify for a number of plans with monthly premiums ranging from $0 to $1,241, after applying a $646.51 a month tax credit.

Led by Gov. Rick Perry, Republican leaders in Texas are some of the country’s biggest critics of the Affordable Care Act. Despite having the highest uninsured rate in the nation – about 34 percent among working-age adults – conservatives insist that government should play no role in providing health care to healthy adults.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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