Health

Thursday, Nov 14 2013 06:48 PM

Insurance enrollment efforts picking up, but still touch-and-go in Kern

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    By AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

    President Barack Obama speaks about his signature health care law in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

Susan Rodriguez has a list of nearly 100 people who have asked for her help.

She is an enrollment counselor with Catholic Charities Diocese of Fresno's Bakersfield location, trained to help people apply for insurance via Covered California, the state's health insurance marketplace. But Rodriguez can't assist the people on her list quite yet because she is still waiting for her badge and password from Covered California.

So far, Rodriguez said the folks on her waiting list have been understanding of the delay and eager to have insurance.

"I keep in touch and I let them know where we stand," Rodriguez said. "They're still really excited."

Other local organizations and their counselors are in the same boat as Rodriguez, going back and forth with Covered California to get to the point where their assistors -- called certified enrollment counselors -- can actually assist people in getting coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Some of these groups and local insurance agents were grappling with similarly frustrating technical problems and delays last month, less than one month into open enrollment.

But for some who were having trouble last month, big improvements have come along.

Bakersfield-based Clinica Sierra Vista, the second-largest federally qualified health center in the nation, has cleared all the hurdles and started to offer face-to-face help with applications.

"Things have improved dramatically in the last week or so," said Bill Phelps, Clinica's chief of programs. "I'm sure there are still going to be little glitches but it is a vast improvement."

On Thursday, Phelps said Clinica's enrollment counselors had assisted dozens of people. The nonprofit now has 22 enrollment counselors bestowed with badges in Kern County.

How many Kern County residents overall have signed up for coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act is still unknown, but statewide enrollment figures were released this week.

On Tuesday, Covered California announced that since open enrollment began Oct. 1, more than 59,000 people have signed up for insurance plans on the state's exchange. A news release said another 72,000 people who applied in October will likely be eligible for Medi-Cal.

Regional enrollment numbers are slated to be released next week.

Other groups are still waiting to reach the point Clinica has and finally be able to help people apply. Jan Hefner, director of the Community Health Initiative of Kern County, said her group has done everything it'srequired to do and is about a week or two behind Clinica.

"We're caught up on everything that we can do other than keep calling (Covered California)," Hefner said.

The group's employees can help people enroll for Medi-Cal or sign up for the Kern Medical Center Health Plan, a program that will transition into Medi-Cal next year.

But for people that don't qualify for those programs right now, Hefner said her group can only take down their contact information or direct them to get in touch with Covered California.

Hefner said the group has received about 50 inquiring phone calls since Oct. 1.

The situation is similarly stalled at Omni Family Health, a local health care provider to the underserved and uninsured.

One counselor received a badge on Thursday, but Diego Martinez, Omni's chief operations officer, said he was still waiting for identification for the organization's six other counselors.

Badges or no badges, Martinez said all of the counselors have a full schedule of people seeking help Friday.

"I would like the communication (within Covered California) to improve. I would like, truthfully, the politicians to become aware of what's happening with these system flaws," he said. "Truthfully, I just need the badges so (we) can get our job done."

Sarah Sol, an information officer for Covered California, said she had not heard of any overall problems affecting the certification process for counselors.

On the insurance agent side of things, local agent Jennifer Crosby said the bumps have started to smooth out.

Crosby, of Crosby & Crosby Insurance Services, initially ran into trouble using the exchange's website, but she said most of those problems have cleared up.

"I can log in and get a quote and create a profile for my customer," she said.

However, Crosby said she hasn't been able to submit a customer's application electronically yet because the website freezes or logs her off before she can send it. So she faxes in paper applications, more than a dozen of them so far by her count. And Covered California usually requests additional information or clarification, she said.

As open enrollment speeds up, Crosby advised consumers take a second look at the exchange and not wait until the last minute to apply. Applicants have to enroll by Dec. 15 for their coverage start on Jan. 1.

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