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By AP Photo/J. David Ake
BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly three weeks into Obamacare enrollment, those who want to help sign up people in Kern County are frustrated over technical hitches getting in their way.
Some said those wrinkles seem to be smoothing out as Covered California, the state's health benefits exchange, makes improvements.
COVERED CALIFORNIA -- BY THE NUMBERS
Unique views to CoveredCA.com
Oct. 1-5: 986,705
Oct. 6-12: 602,539
Oct. 1-5: 59,003
Oct. 6-12: 45,785
Certified Enrollment Counselors
Certified Oct. 1-12: 279
In progress: 3,824
Certified Insurance Agents
Certified Oct. 1-12: 1,295
In progress: 3,382
County Eligibility Workers
Certified Oct. 1-12: 5,287
In progress: 5,421
Oct. 1-12: "more than approximately 94,500"
Source: Statewide numbers by Covered California
"The transaction time between (online) screens, it was taking a long time and now the screens are moving a lot faster," said Pam Holiwell, assistant director of the Kern County Department of Human Services.
But for others, problems persist.
"Due to technical difficulties on the website, we have not been able to assist with any enrollment," said Nicole Nieuwkoop, an insurance agent with The Lynn Company.
The state has not divulged exactly how many people have enrolled in insurance via Covered California. An agency spokesman said the first statewide enrollment figures will be out in November.
But "more than approximately 94,500 applications were started" from Oct. 1 through Oct. 12, according to a news release.
Covered California hasn't broken its numbers down by region. But Kern's Holiwell said as of Wednesday, about 130 "Obamacare applications" have been completed with the help of local county eligibility workers for expanded Medi-Cal or Covered California.
The Human Services Department estimated in September that about 38,000 Kern County residents would qualify for expanded Medi-Cal -- the state's version of Medicaid -- next year. It said it's been estimated that about 52,000 will qualify for federal subsidies to buy insurance on the exchange.
NO ENROLLMENT COUNSELORS YET
Leaders of several local community organizations said they are still working with Covered California to get their groups and enrollment counselors through all the necessary steps to start helping folks sign up.
"So far we don't have any fully certified enrollment counselors in Kern County," said Edgar Aguilar, program manager for the Community Health Initiative of Kern County. "Covered California has experienced some technical difficulties in getting the process completed."
In the meantime, Aguilar said, his agency is screening people who call in. Some are eligible for Medi-Cal now, others qualify for the Low Income Health Program, which will transition into Medi-Cal next year.
Staff refer people who don't qualify for either program to Covered California's website and phone number.
If people want in-person help, though, they're asked to wait.
"We're taking their name and number and telling them, 'We'll call you in a couple weeks,'" Aguilar said. "I hope it doesn't have a tremendously negative effect on the people who have called already because they couldn't get that help right away."
The situation is discouraging, Aguilar said, but at the same time, he understands that this is all new and there are "some technical hiccups."
Still, he hopes things get better soon.
On Thursday, Clinica Sierra Vista administrator Bill Phelps said he was increasingly frustrated that the health care provider -- which served more than 152,000 patients last year, making it the second largest federally qualified health center in the nation -- was still not an active enrollment entity, though many of its enrollment counselors had passed their background checks.
He'd been told a software snag was holding up Clinica's application.
"In theory it's all great, but in practice we're dealing with technological glitches that I think should have been resolved by now," he said.
Phelps said there is still plenty of interest in the Affordable Care Act's options, but he also is worried that people could be discouraged by the hold-ups.
On Friday morning, however, Phelps, the agency's chief of programs, was feeling much better after Clinica's certified enrollment entity account was activated.
"We're hoping that once we get going, we won't run into technical problems," Phelps said.
Larry Hicks, a Covered California spokesman, said he didn't know what held up Clinica but pointed out that the problem had been resolved.
"There's not necessarily a systemic issue involving (agencies) like Clinica Sierra Vista in their application process," he said. "We're trying to certify hundreds of organizations as fast as we can because getting them out there and enrolling people is what our mission is."
AGENTS GRAPPLE WITH GLITCHES
Confusion about the Affordable Care Act's particulars also has been issue, according to two local insurance agents.
Jennifer Crosby of Crosby & Crosby Insurance Services in Bakersfield said she received calls on Oct. 1, the first day of open enrollment, from people who "wanted the free insurance."
"Once I explained (how Covered California works) to them, they weren't interested anymore," she said.
Nieuwkoop, the other insurance agent, said some customers have been befuddled to learn they can't get subsidies to buy insurance on the exchange if their employer already provides benefits that are deemed affordable.
Crosby also said she has had heaps of trouble logging into the Covered California website as an agent since she received an email notifying her that her certification was complete. Sometimes the site freezes, other times it says it is logging in for hours.
"For the most part, I just use the consumer website," she said.
Crosby sent an email to Covered California Monday about the problem. She received a reply Wednesday that said the website had been experiencing "several glitches for the past few days."
"We are currently working on the website and are addressing these issues," the email said.
Crosby has several customers who are considering buying a plan through Covered California, including one who is coming to her office Tuesday with tax records so they can plug in needed information.
But so far, Crosby hasn't enrolled anyone.
A RELIEF, THOUGH, FOR OTHERS
On the other hand, one Kern County family said technical issues aside, open enrollment and the Affordable Care Act is a big relief for them.
"The Affordable Care Act does have a few kinks to be ironed out, but I cannot begin to describe how happy we are just to know there are no longer any (prejudices) against pre-existing conditions," Megan Foster, of Tehachapi, wrote in a Facebook message to The Californian.
Her mother, Mary Foster, also of Tehachapi, has multiple health problems, including epilepsy, and has struggled to find health insurance. With the opening of the exchange, Mary Foster was glad that coverage could start Jan. 1 for everyone and that she could shop for plans from different companies, not just those that accepted her with all her medical issues.
"Finally she can buy insurance in the exact same way as everybody else, without extra fees, without jumping through the channels, and most importantly, without being denied because of something she has that was not caused by her own faults," Megan Foster wrote.
"It is hard to describe unless you have lived through it, watching someone you care about being treated like they were less than human because of a health condition they just happened to have."