Health

Saturday, Mar 22 2014 10:47 PM

Health care signups get push

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Rogelio Ruiz just finished enrolling in health insurance Saturday morning at the East Bakersfield Community Health Center at Clinica Sierra Vista's enrollment workshop in east Bakersfield on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. March 31 is the open enrollment deadline to buy insurance from the Healthcare Marketplace.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Linda Flores, a Certified Enrollment Counselor for Covered California and an employee of Clinica Sierra Vista, was busy Saturday enrolling people through the enrollment workshop.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ana Velasquez, program coordinator for Covered California for health insurance, gives instructions to those preparing to enroll for health insurance Saturday at the East Bakersfield Community Health Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    People were lined up to get health insurance Saturday at Clinica Sierra Vista as the open enrollment deadline for Covered California is March 31. They held an enrollment workshop Saturday and will also hold one Saturday, March 29, at the East Bakersfield Community Health Center.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dozens wait their turn to enroll in Covered California on Saturday at the East Bakersfield Community Health Center.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

When Angel Martinez signed up for health insurance at a Covered California enrollment workshop Saturday, it was the first time in his life he had ever had a policy.

At 52, Martinez has several health issues he's looking forward to investigating, including a lung problem and a mysterious numbness in one of his thighs.

"Before, doctors wouldn't see me because I didn't have insurance," Martinez said through a translator at East Bakersfield Community Health Center. "When my coverage starts, I'm going to get checked out from head to toe."

Martinez's enrollment is a partial victory for Covered California, the state's health benefits exchange.

Demographers have predicted March is the month the state's Latino population will surpass that of whites, making Hispanics the majority in California.

That's why it's critical to get more Hispanics into the program ahead of the March 31 open enrollment deadline, and why the state has been recruiting hard with public service announcements and advertisements in media targeting Latinos. Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta is assisting the effort as a spokeswoman.

The campaign worked on Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who said he learned of Saturday's enrollment workshop on Spanish language television.

But it's easy to recruit sick people, whose need for health insurance is obvious. It's a lot harder to recruit young, healthy consumers whose premiums are needed to cover the cost of treating the ill.

Covered California hasn't excelled at that, which is why health care analysts generally give the state mixed ratings on its rollout of the state health insurance marketplace.

Health care experts are watching the state's performance closely counting down to March 31, the last day to sign up for low-cost health plans made possible by the Affordable Care Act.

Anyone who hasn't obtained coverage through the exchange or elsewhere by then will be subject to tax penalties of either $95 or 1 percent of adjusted gross income, whichever is greater.

Covered California and the California Department of Health Care Services have made much of the fact that California leads the nation in the number of consumers who enrolled in plans through a state exchange.

California's goal was to sign up a million people before the end of the second open enrollment period that starts Oct. 15, but it has already hit that target going into the final days of the first open enrollment ending a week from Monday.

"And we expect it to pick up toward the end of open enrollment, just like we saw a surge in the final days of the Dec. 23 deadline for coverage to begin Jan. 1," said Covered California spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez.

The fact that many people who otherwise couldn't buy insurance now have coverage is an achievement for the state, said Anthony Wright, executive director of the health care consumer advocacy coalition Health Access.

"People aren't filling out 25-page questionnaires about their health only to be turned down for a pre-existing condition," he said.

Compared to other states, California has a lot to be proud of, said Erin Trish, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Southern California's Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.

Comparing the debut of the health benefits exchange to an ideal rollout is something else, Trish said.

The Covered California web portal was taken down for five days earlier this month to correct a software glitch.

In February, a list of network doctors and hospitals was removed from the site after it was found to be riddled with errors. Telephone hold times also discouraged a lot of would-be customers. According to the state's own statistics, the average wait time in January was 51 minutes, although it was down to 33 minutes at the beginning of this month.

"There were some missteps along the way just like in the federal exchange, but I think they've done a good job of recovering and meeting their overall target," Trish said.

Still, it's not just how many you sign up but who, she added.

"The distribution of age and ethnicity probably isn't what they'd hoped for," Trish said.

Enrollment of young people and ethnic and racial minorities -- including those critical Hispanics -- continues to lag that of the state's population as a whole.

The nine-county Central Valley region, with its high numbers of uninsured Latinos, would have a lot more than the 64,189 enrollees the state reported Friday but for the technical problems with the web portal, according to Clinica Sierra Vista, which has 17 clinics in Kern County mostly serving low-income families.

Here in Kern, the state reported 10,124 residents had enrolled in plans through Covered California as of the end of February, 90.4 percent of whom were eligible for subsidies.

February's total was a nearly 25 percent increase over the 8,118 enrolled in subsidized and non-subsidized plans through January.

But Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Stephen Schilling estimates as many as 100,000 Kern County residents are eligible for Covered California health plans, "because our county has very low employment-based insurance coverage, around 35 percent."

Clinica Sierra Vista's certified enrollment counselors were pulling their hair out earlier this month because they couldn't process applications online.

But at Saturday's enrollment workshop, the process was running a lot smoother, said Ana Velasquez, an outreach supervisor at East Bakersfield Community Health Center.

Despite a line that began forming about 7:30 a.m., by 2 p.m. the clinic had enrolled 85 people without any technical problems.

Enrollment would have been even higher if all of the consumers who came in would have had the proper documents, Velasquez added. Applicants need to have proof of identity, legal residency and income, among other things. About 40 consumers who lacked that paperwork were given appointments for the clinic's next enrollment workshop on March 29.

One of Saturday's applicants was Minerva Rodriguez, who is just the type of consumer the state would like to see more of.

She's young (38), healthy and Latina, and had been meaning to buy insurance for a while.

"I want it for my kids," said the mother of three, an uninsured homemaker whose husband is self-employed. "We're blessed to be healthy, but I wanted the vision and dental and just the basic physicals every year. We're behind on that."

Velasquez was downright giddy as she surveyed Saturday's traffic.

"We had people come from as far away is Delano, Lamont and McFarland," she said.

The March 29 workshop will have extended hours in anticipation of a flood of procrastinators days before the deadline.

"The message is getting out," Velasquez said. "We'll be ready for them."

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