The federal government shutdown dragging on didn’t stop counties around the United States from pushing forward with the rollout of open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.
Colloquially known as Obamacare, open enrollment officially began Tuesday, Oct. 1, and Santa Cruz County officials estimate it could affect as many as 30,000 county residents. Of those, an estimated 8,600 residents are newly eligible for Medi-Cal, according to Cecilia Espinola, director of the county’s human services department.
An additional 20,000 county residents are eligible for a federal subsidy to purchase private insurance, she says.
The state established Covered California as its health insurance exchange, and three service centers are being operated throughout the state. At the county level, though, employees are already working hard to get the word out about the Affordable Care Act and help local residents get the resources they need.
Covered California is open to legal residents of the state without access to affordable health insurance through their employer or another government program. Small-employers with 50 or fewer full-time employees can also purchase health insurance through Covered California.
A major challenge is not only getting the word out, but also clarifying a lot of the confusion that surrounds the Affordable Care Act. (Television host Jimmy Kimmel recently did a segment in which people on the street were asked if they like Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act better, and the responses—strongly in favor of the latter over the former—served as a bittersweet joke about the infamous bewilderment surrounding the matter.)
To help with this, an additional 24 new eligibility workers were hired within Santa Cruz County to enroll people in Medi-Cal, Espinola says. Increased funding from
the state’s Medi-Cal program paid for the new employees, who have undergone training to learn how to help determine if residents are eligible for the expanded coverage.
Though Medi-Cal is currently only available to low-income children, some parents, those over 65 and people with disabilities, the program is expanding in 2014 to cover all citizens and residents who make less than 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. That’s $15,856 for an individual and $32,499 for a family of four. Those who make more than that may still be eligible for federally subsidized insurance, be it through a private insurer or Covered California.
The county has established a broad network of community partners to help with the outreach component—a network that includes Community Bridges, Salud Para la Gente, United Way of Santa Cruz County, Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s Healthy Start program, Children’s Support Services and the Second Harvest Food Bank. This regional outreach is partially funded by a $500,000 tri-county grant shared with Monterey and San Benito counties. The grant has paid for 91 people in the three counties to become certified enrollment counselors, a title that basically means the individuals are trained to speak with people directly about the health insurance options open to them.
“We want to make sure it’s not complicated,” says Dr. Jose Chibras, director of external medical relations and special projects at Salud Para la Gente. “We want to help people enroll in the plan that’s right for them.”
Despite efforts, the enrollment process hasn’t been without kinks in the first couple of weeks. Nationwide, computer glitches have hampered the process for thousands of Americans, adding fuel to critics’ fire. News reports since the roll out have been filled with stories of frustrated users unable to reach healthcare.gov, receiving messages such as “the system is down at the moment.” The Department of Health and Human Services reported that the site logged more than one million visits in just a few hours of the launch. Of respondents in a poll by AP and GfK released last week, three-fourths of those who tried to sign up in the exchanges reported experiencing problems.
Here in California, Covered California’s telephone service centers have experienced an onslaught of calls and the website has crashed a number of times due to overload, much to the frustration of those trying to enroll.
Still, Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California, said at a news conference in Sacramento on Tuesday, Oct. 8 that 28,699 people were signed up in the state health insurance exchange in the first week. Lee says that exceeded expectations, though he didn’t specify how many of those people were eligible for Medi-Cal versus subsidized private health insurance.
Espinola hopes that having people trained at the local level to help can mitigate some of the frustration felt by those trying to access the overloaded Covered California channels. She emphasizes that the county has worked hard to prepare for the roll out and ensure assistance is available here. As of press time, she did not have a total of how many calls the human services department had received in regard to Medi-Cal eligibility, though she says it “hasn’t been an onslaught.”
To learn more about healthcare enrollment, contact the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department at (888) 421-8080 or call Covered California (coveredca.com) at (888) 975-1142. If you need coverage now and believe you may be eligible for Medi-Cal, you also can call (888) 421-8080 or log on to mybenefitscalwin.org.