For the uninsured, it’s crunch time 

Residents in Austin and across the country have until Feb. 15, to purchase health insurance or face a penalty of $325 or 2 percent of their income, whichever is greater. That’s a significant increase over the present penalty – $99 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater – set to expire after the Feb. 15 deadline.

Since the second open enrollment period began Nov. 15, about 9.9 million people have signed up for Obamacare coverage, well above the federal government’s goal of 9.1 million. In Illinois, nearly 297,000 people have gotten covered in the second open enrollment period as of Jan. 30, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Audrey Carl, a communications lead for Get Covered America, a national organization focused on raising awareness of Obamacare, said that the organization doesn’t have neighborhood-level data on the percentage of eligible people who haven’t enrolled, but they do have a sense of where their work is needed most.

Michael King, the West Side organizer for Get Covered America,  pointed out that the organization is drawn to communities such as Austin because of the need to get the information about the law out among the people who need coverage the most—but who often are least likely to get it.

“We noticed that there are a higher proportion of folks who are uninsured here in Austin,” King said, adding that he’s willing to take the enrollment message practically anywhere, including to schools and laundromats.

On Feb. 7, King was setup somewhere a bit more predictable. Get Covered America partnered with Loretto Hospital, 645 South Central Avenue, for an enrollment event at the West Side hospital held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Participants cycled among booths that were manned by community navigators, or personnel trained to assist people to sign up through the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) online health insurance marketplace.

The navigators represented various social service agencies from across the Austin and the greater West Side, such as the Westside Health Authority, Mt. Sinai, Ada S. McKinley and Habilitative Systems. During the weekdays, Loretto has community navigators present onsite for individuals who don’t make it to enrollment events.

According to Rep. Camille Lilly (78th), who serves as Loretto’s vice president of external affairs and development, about 11 people signed up for coverage in the event’s first hour, about a third of the way toward the hospital’s goal of 40 enrollees.

“People are still constantly coming in,” Lilly said about halfway through the one-day campaign. She said, in total, about 20 people had signed up for coverage at the midway point, which would put her team on pace to hit their mark.

“The momentum is great,” she said, but conceded that there’s still some ways to go, noting that roughly 35 to 39 percent of Austin residents are eligible for Medicaid, which under the ACA was expanded to include more low-income individuals.

Those who make less than $16,105, or a family of four that earns less than $32,913, qualifies for Medicaid. Individuals and families who earn above those amounts can shop for private insurance plans on the ACA Marketplace.

According to Janice Henry, a community health nurse coordinator at Loretto, about 20 percent of people in Illinois who are eligible to sign up for ACA coverage haven’t signed up yet. She said she believes that the percentage of un-enrolled people in Austin is at least as high.

Lilly expressed particular concern over the population of convicted felons reentering society. She noted that she plans on introducing a bill this legislative session that would penalize released felons who don’t get coverage within 90 days of returning home.

“When they come home, they have to do a lot of things,” she said. “They have to find a place to live, they have to enroll in health coverage or they’re going to get this penalty placed on them, so I put forth legislation that would require us to enroll all individuals returning home prior to them leaving the correctional system.”

When asked how this would incentivize other agencies and departments within the criminal justice system to help these felons get coverage, thereby avoiding the fine, Lilly said that she hopes her proposed legislation can assist correctional facilities with making the health of those leaving their confines a top priority.

Tearalla Herbert, an in-person counselor and director with Ada S. McKinley, said that the process of enrolling in Obamacare is rather simple. She said that individuals who want to get enrolled should bring some form of ID, their Social Security number and proof of income, if applicable.

Once the pre-screening process is completed, Herbert said the potential enrollee should just follow the lead of the in-person counselor, or navigator, walking him or her through the process.

Qualifying individuals can also sign-up for Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits while enrolling for healthcare.

Once the process is completed and enrollees are registered into the system, “We usually follow-up within 45-60 days,” Herbert said.

West Side resident Derrick Ecchols said that he wasn’t familiar with Obamacare, even though he’s currently enrolled in CountyCare—Cook County’s expanded Medicaid program that is funded through Obamacare.

He was at the Saturday enrollment event with his wife, who had decided that she would possibly forego signing up with the navigator and do it herself at home.

It was all for the good for Rep. Lilly, who said that Obamacare was instrumental in providing people like the Ecchols a newfound sense of power and agency over their health.

“We are addressing the healthcare needs of Illinoisans and they’re feeling good that they do not have to worry about their healthcare,” she said. “They are accessing healthcare as part of their lifestyle versus waiting to get sick.”

Editor’s Note: Next week, Feb. 14, Loretto will host one last daylong push to get West Side residents covered. The hospital will setup massage chairs and provide free food for attendees. Individuals interested in enrolling can also visit Loretto’s community health department and ask for Janice Henry.