Individuals trained to assist people with the insurance process, dubbed “Navigators” by the federal government, set up shop at Cleveland State Community College on Wednesday in an effort to get more people to sign up and avoid fines.
Tracey Wright, director of special programs at Cleveland State, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contacted the college’s president, Dr. Bill Seymour, to ask that he allow the college to play host to the sign-up event.
She explained it was part of a nationwide effort to get people to sign up for health insurance before the deadline, especially young adults at colleges and universities.
However, Cleveland State students were not the only ones who visited to learn more about getting insurance through the federal insurance exchange.
“As best I can tell, it’s mostly been people from the community,” Wright said about an hour and a half into the five-hour event. “Access to health care is one of those critical needs of all members of the community.”
The same remained true throughout most of the event. An hour before the five-hour event was set to end, more than 20 names were listed on the event’s sign-in sheet, and many people attended with their spouses or other family members.
When people arrived, they were directed to a room where they could sit down with Navigators and volunteers to learn more about getting health insurance. If someone wanted to learn more about the specific plans available to them and sign up, they could go into a computer lab and have someone walk them through the process.
Walter Davis, executive director of Nashville-based advocacy organization Tennessee Health Care Campaign, said confusion about the Affordable Care Act’s requirements and the process of getting insurance in general had hindered some of the event’s attendees from getting insurance on their own. Some people had told him they didn’t know the meaning of terms like “premium” and “deductible.”
Navigator Quetta Pipkin said those applying to receive insurance have faced problems throughout the process, but what people have had trouble with has continuously evolved.
“In the beginning, it was technical problems [with the website],” Pipkin said. “Now, it’s plan selection.”
Volunteer Katherlyn Geter, the Affordable Care Act manager for Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, said many people simply did not know how to weigh the pros and cons of each insurance plan.
Even though people were available to help those interested in enrolling in insurance, not everyone was able to sign up.
Geter said some had to be turned away because they did not meet a minimum income requirement.
According to the “Health Insurance Marketplace Workshop Handbook” used by navigators and volunteers, a single person must have a household income of more than $11,490 to sign up for an insurance plan through the federal marketplace because of the monthly premium payments required. Those who make above that amount and are below certain income levels may qualify for things like subsidies, but there is a required minimum.
Davis said Gov. Bill Haslam’s “failure” of not expanding the state’s MediCare program, TennCare, was to blame for some not being able to sign up.
Navigator Myron Douglas said there has been an influx of people who have waited until the last minute and found they needed help. Many of them have been “apprehensive” about getting insurance because they “don’t know what the health care law entails.”
He said a common misconception is that people must get insurance through the federal health care website, while having insurance through their workplace or a Medicaid program like TennCare would actually satisfy the requirement and keep people from paying fines.
Those who choose not to purchase insurance plans in 2014 will be subject to a fine referred to as an “individual shared responsibility payment,” according to HealthCare.gov.
“The fee in 2014 is 1 percent of your yearly income, or $95 per person for the year, whichever is higher,” it reads. “The fee increases every year. In 2016, it's 2.5 percent of income or $695 per person, whichever is higher.”
People who are required to pay that will be required to do so when filing their income taxes from 2014, which won’t be due until April 2015.
Though it is now required by law that people either get insurance or pay a fine, Davis said he believed more people having insurance meant fewer people finding themselves in dire straits because of medical bills.
Douglas pointed out that the Affordable Care Act’s requirements are new to everyone and urged people to be persistent when signing up for insurance. Though he said he was one of only eight navigators in the state of Tennessee, many local communities have volunteers who are willing to assist those who need it.
“Be patient,” he said. “We are here to help.”
While visitors asked for their comments on their experiences with the health insurance marketplace declined to share their experiences, the navigators said many people told them they attended the event because they either had trouble finding the information they needed or had difficulties with some of the website’s functions.
Davis said one woman he had met that day said she had gone through the entire online sign-up process on her own and was getting ready to pay for her first insurance premium, a requirement when enrolling. The website was allegedly unable to process her payment, and she attended the event to see if she could get help. He said it did go through “after a few tries.”
Though the March 31 deadline is fast approaching, there will be an opportunity for those who have already begun the process of getting health insurance through the online exchange. Navigators and other volunteers at the event said those who created accounts on the site and began the process of enrolling before the deadline would be given until April 15.
Davis said he believed there would be some sort of button to click or box to check and compared the process to filing for an income tax extension.
While Davis said events like the one that took place will not continue after March 31, there will still be help available to those still trying to enroll. There are no more events scheduled to take place in Cleveland, but events are scheduled in places like Chattanooga.
For more information about the federal insurance exchange, visit www.HealthCare.gov or call 1-800-318-2596. For information about receiving help from people at events like the one at Cleveland State, visit www.GetCoveredTenn.org or www.THCC2.org.