As the Dec. 23 deadline approaches to obtain health insurance under the new health care law for coverage Jan. 1, those assisting Grays Harbor residents are working to make up for lost time.
While many local officials assisting with the change are still running into problems with the state’s health care exchange website, they say it has worked passably better since early November, especially when compared to the shaky time after the Oct. 1 rollout, when most say they could not access it at all. New data released shows more than 2,300 Grays Harbor residents have been enrolled in a health plan or in the state’s expanded Medicaid, now known as “Apple Health,” since the rollout.
The Dec. 23 deadline for January coverage was already extended by the Department of Health and Human Services, but Thursday it was announced that further extension might be forthcoming if “exceptional circumstances” bar consumers from enrolling on or before that day. The deadline to enroll in coverage or face a tax penalty under the law is March 31.
Since individuals are not considered successfully enrolled until their first premium payment, the state’s enrollment numbers do not reflect exactly how many Harborites seeking coverage have been successfully helped thus far. The recently released enrollment report from the Washington Health Benefit Exchange lists total enrollment for Grays Harbor County currently at 2,360 individuals. That number is out of an estimated 11,300 uninsured in the county who were determined to qualify for coverage under the new law, from Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services data in October.
Not surprisingly, considering local demographics in terms of poverty and unemployment, the majority of those successfully enrolled on Grays Harbor did so in Apple Health — 2,137 of them. Likewise, the majority of those who enrolled in health insurance plans qualified for tax credits to lower their monthly insurance premiums. The data shows that, thus far, only 19 individuals in Grays Harbor County who enrolled in a health plan, did so without qualifying for or without applying for financial help.
Total enrollment for the entire state since the Oct 1. roll-out is at 179,000 individuals, according to the state’s exchange data for November. Enrollments in private health plans saw an increase from 6,351 in Oct. to 20,144 enrollment in November.
Sea Mar Community Health Center, one of the three locations with “in-person assisters,” or those qualified by the state to assist with the exchange on Grays Harbor, is preparing for the approaching deadline by offering its services over this past weekend and this coming Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The clinic will be open “to do nothing but enroll people” through the exchange, according to Audra Lutz, the clinic manager for the center.
“The deadline is coming, so we’re trying to give people every opportunity to come in … We’re trying to think outside the box and give people a few options.”
Sea Mar will also work alongside the county’s health department at an annual event targeting the homeless population in January.
Currently, Lutz said they still struggle with the state’s website.
“It is still down more than it is up,” she said. However, of the 308 people she said the center has helped to apply, they estimate that around three-quarters, or about 250 people have been enrolled.
Aside from aiding citizens with enrolling before the approaching deadline, the clinic said they have been prepared for a possible inrush of patients who have newly acquired insurance as well.
“It’s not anywhere where it might be yet when Jan. 1 rolls around. We’re pretty well prepared for it,” she said. “We’re at full-provider capacity, which is good. We still have some wiggle room, but I think we’re fairly well prepared.”
Lutz said the center has been working to accommodate any influx due to the new law for some time, though they are not predicting drastic change since many patients were formally being seen on their sliding scale despite not having insurance.
“We’ve been ramping up for some time, since we knew it was coming on,” she said, adding they were fairly certain the law would be implemented despite challenges to it. “As soon as the law passed, even though we knew some would be challenged, we tried to be prepared for a roll-out.”
Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services, another spot locals can go to receive help with enrollment, said it too has struggled with the site.
“The website is still having growing pains,” said Kim Carson, their nursing supervisor.
She said that they have not had a single person sit down at their kiosk and purchase insurance in the facility, but have had “tons of foot traffic” coming in and attempting to apply for Apple Health for Kids or Medicaid online under the state’s expanded coverage. About 90 percent of them are blocked from finishing due to problems like error messages, failing to verify emails, income tax filing errors and other internal error messages, said Carson. So instead, they help them fill out paper applications instead and fax them in.
Mark Harvey, director of information and assistance for the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, another of the three options for exchange assistance, called the website issues “highly frustrating” and said along with conflicting enrollment for Medicare Part D and Advantage it has caused them some workload issues.
“We have paper applications stacked up in all six of our offices,” he said, adding there are several hundred of them. He said the Grays Harbor office specifically, also received many referrals from other organization assisting with the change.
“Most people aren’t in the business of helping to navigate health care,” he said. “It can be challenging and eye opening … Words like deductibles, and co-pays — if you’ve never had health insurance those are Martian terms.”
Harvey said while they do not have the capacity for special events like the one at Sea Mar this weekend and the next, they too are preparing for an influx of people coming to apply before the deadline on Dec 23.
“We’re just looking at what’s on our own plates and seeing if we could set some of that aside until the first of the year,” he said.