A lifelong resident of Austin, let’s call her “Mary Anderson,” recently made her fifth attempt to purchase insurance from the online exchange setup as part of the Affordable Care Act.
She was laid off at her high-paying office job 10 years ago and has largely done temporary work since.
She obtains health insurance through her husband’s employment; however, a month ago, the couple saw their monthly rate go from $748 to $904. The rate has proven to be difficult to afford on their fixed income.
“I wanted to compare policies on the exchange because of the amount of money we are paying for insurance, but the website has been so difficult to use,” Anderson, who asked that her real name not be used, said. “We have not been able to comparison shop yet. I haven’t given up on affordable health care, but I am frustrated that it has not been able to help us now that we really need it.”
Anderson’s story is a very common one in the nearly two months since the online exchanges launched through the Affordable Health Care Act’s website, HealthCare.gov. Visitors to the site have experienced delays, crashes and assorted hindrances to their ability to shop for health care coverage.
Despite its rocky launch, however, several West Side legislators and health care providers are doing their parts in encouraging residents to sign up for health insurance under the law.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) is currently working with federally-qualified health agents to help fill the expanded Medicaid rolls.
“We want to make sure that people are aware that there has been a widening of the safety net under the Affordable Care Act and that they have options for coverage, whether they are unemployed, under-employed or working poor,” Ford said.
Ford does acknowledge, though, the frustration people are feeling right now with the exchanges post-launch. And also expects there to be political fallout if the problems aren’t corrected soon.
“If the problems are not solved, I do see people holding their elected officials accountable for it,” he said. “It’s our responsibility though to see that we get the issues ironed out. It doesn’t just benefit us politically, but it benefits everyone to have a system in place that they can rely on.”
State Rep. Camille Lilly (78th) has co-hosted events with Shriners and Loretto hospitals where attendees can signup for, according to Audrey Joycox, Lilly’s legislative district coordinator.
“At the Loretto event on Nov. 19, the representative talked to business owners about what the law would mean to them,” Joycox said. “She is very adamant in her belief that the health care law will help relieve the financial burden of health care costs on her constituents, even though there have been some troubles early on.”
Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) has also appeared at such events. Her office has also sent out 10,000 robocalls to notify constituents of sign-up efforts at a recently-held open-house.
“There have been problems early on with the website, but I find that some of the older residents tend to prefer to have a liaison explain the legislation to them. So I think that having constituents sign up in person may be better in the interim, especially for our senior customers who are less tech savvy,” Graham said.
“I think [President Barack Obama]” she added, “was correct to offer an extension for customers to sign up for health care in light of the difficulties. We are hoping that the problems with the online exchanges can be solved during that period. But in the meantime, we want to assure customers that there are many tangible benefits to signing up.”
Oak Park-based PCC Community Wellness Center is currently working on outreach initiatives on the West Side. In the Austin and West Garfield communities, PCC is providing assistance for individuals looking to search for health care providers on the exchange.
“In October, we had our counselors speak at Austin Town Hall Park and Austin Library as part of our recruitment efforts,” said Charles Edwards, an in-person counselor for PCC. “We signed up 40 people in the first month alone. The response has been positive thus far.”
Although the Obama administration is currently doing damage control due to the website’s problems, Edwards asserts that he has experienced few problems during the sign-up process.
“We are looking at the problems with the online exchanges in the past tense,” he said. “We’ve been able to access the exchanges easily and have not had troubles with the glitches that have been reported.”
Currently, PCC has three in-person counselors and two certified applications counselors available to help residents sign up.
“We want to get people signed up,” Edwards said. “I think once people see the benefits, they are going to be very satisfied with the options available to them in the exchange.”
But that’s been a tough sell given the website’s glitches in preventing customers like Anderson from purchasing insurance.
According to Illinoispolicy.org, in the month following the official launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, roughly 106,000 people have put an insurance plan on their cart for purchase.
Even if every single one of those plans were purchased, it would be a far cry from the 500,000 projection the Obama administration hoped for an initial sign up.