In final week, health care enrollment push is on

The Gainesville Sun
By Chris Curry

Working three decades for the state prison system, Gainesville resident Telia Batts did not have to worry about maintaining health insurance coverage.

But after his retirement 10 years ago, Batts, now 64, and his wife, Wanda, eventually found themselves in a coverage gap. He paid out of pocket for insurance for a while but saw a steep rise in the cost for the plan and had to cancel it when he was still a few years away from turning 65 and qualifying for Medicare.

So they turned to the Affordable Care Act, an option Wanda Batts said they “gave up a little bit” on last year because of the difficulties signing up when the HealthCare.gov website first rolled out.

During a Jan. 24 enrollment event at The Wooly in downtown Gainesville, they were among the more than 40 people who enrolled in an ACA health care plan for 2015.

“It’s a great relief,” Telia Batts said as he walked out of the venue onto North Main Street.

Local enrollment is up this year, according to figures released by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in January.

At least nine local ZIP code areas had higher enrollment numbers for the first two months of this year’s sign-up period, which began in mid-November, than for the full six-month enrollment period last year.

By contrast, the 32641 ZIP code in east Gainesville saw 612 people sign up during last year’s enrollment period and 570 during the first two months of this period.

People who signed up for coverage last year and re-enrolled this year count in each year’s figures.

In both years, the highest local enrollment numbers were in three densely populated ZIP codes: 32608 and 32607 in southwest Gainesville and 32605 in northwest Gainesville. In 2014, 32608 had 1,328 people enrolled in 2014 and 1,721 through Jan. 16. There were 1,075 in 32607 in 2014 and 1,248 through Jan. 16. Last year, 32605 had 886 and it had 1,178 through Jan. 16.

Statewide, more than 1.3 million people have enrolled or re-enrolled in an ACA plan this year, the largest number of any state using the federal health care marketplace exchange. Nationwide, 9.9 million people have enrolled or re-enrolled, according to HHS.

In Florida, 93 percent of the people enrolled have received financial help in purchasing coverage in the form of a tax subsidy that is averaging $297 per person/per month, according to HHS.

Among all consumers who are signed up for 2015 coverage in the 37 HealthCare.gov states, 8 out of 10 could chose a plan with a premium of $100 or less after tax credits, the agency said.

With the 2015 Affordable Care Act sign-up period now nearing its Sunday deadline, the event at The Wooly was one piece of a continued enrollment push by advocates like the group Enroll America and navigators, the seasonal workers who help people enroll in coverage.

Two weeks ago, navigators with the WellFlorida Council were at Santa Fe College working to sign up a demographic group that enrollment efforts targeted this year — young adults, or the “young invincibles,” who might not think they need insurance until it is too late, said Lauren Vagelakos, who oversees the navigator program in this region of Florida for the nonprofit WellFlorida Council.

Last week, navigators with the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida were at City College, targeting enrollment efforts on non-traditional students who might be older, attending classes part time and working at a job that does not offer health insurance.

Mandy Hancock Anderson, the community development manager at the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida Gainesville office, said the group has also distributed fliers in the employee break rooms of businesses in the Butler Plaza shopping district to reach retail and restaurant workers who do not work enough hours to have employer-paid insurance or other benefits.

“It’s challenging to get the word out to everybody who needs to know it,” Hancock Anderson said.

In the waning days of the second year of enrollment, navigators and advocates like David O’Malley, an organizer with Enroll America, say it is growing more difficult to reach uninsured people who are eligible to get coverage through the ACA and, in many cases, legally required to do so or face a financial penalty.

Geoff Humphreys, 33, is one of them. Humphreys, who works at The Wooly, said he used to have health care coverage through his mother’s plan, but he has gone without health insurance for several years. He said he thought about enrolling last year but “dilly-dallied around” and never signed up.

This year, he signed up during the enrollment event at The Wooly. Part of his motivation is to get coverage but he also wants to avoid the increased penalty in 2015 for people who do not sign up for coverage.

Last year, the penalty for an individual was 1 percent of income above the taxing threshold or a $95 flat fee — whichever is higher. This year, the penalty rises to 2 percent of income or $325 per person — whichever is higher.

“I didn’t calculate what the penalty would be in my case, but I got scared enough by some numbers that friends told me,” Humphreys said.

Another target aspect of the enrollment push took place Saturday in Live Oak and focused on Latinos. Two Spanish-speaking navigators answered questions about the health care law and assisted people with enrolling.

On Saturday, there will be a “last chance” enrollment event at the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development, just west of downtown on West University Avenue.

People who miss the Sunday deadline likely will have to wait to sign up for coverage until the next open enrollment season, with coverage starting in 2016. Limited exceptions that will allow people to enroll after the deadline include getting married or divorced, having a baby, losing job-based coverage or moving to an area with different health plans.

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