With a local waiting list of 4,000 people and only 13 enrollment specialists to help them sign up for insurance under the provisions of the federal Affordable Healthcare Act, officials at North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC) may not be able to get everybody covered by the March 31 deadline.
Those who do not sign up for insurance coverage by that date may have to pay fines and will not likely be able to sign up again until November.
But according to Manuel R. Diaz, director of Business Development and Community Relations for NHCAC, signing up people is a slow process.
NHCAC is a health care provider for low-income Hudson County residents. It has sites in Union City, West New York and Jersey City. To reach people more easily, NHCAC has also set up satellite offices in some libraries.
Commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aims to give more Americans access to affordable, quality health insurance, and to reduce the growth in health care spending in the U.S. by expanding the affordability, quality, and availability of private and public health insurance. It does not replace private insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid, but it does regulate health insurance and some of the worst practices of the for-profit health care industry.
“Once people realized the site was working, we got a flood of people trying to sign up.” – Joan Quigley
Under the provisions of the ACA, most Americans must obtain health coverage by 2014, get an exemption, or pay a penalty. To this end, the federal or state government has set up health insurance market places known as exchanges where people can shop for the plan that best suits their needs.
The problem is, said Joan Quigley, president and CEO of NHCAC, the govenrnment’s website either didn’t work or worked so badly that it discouraged people from signing up for almost two months. Now, the deadline is close.
“Once people realized the site was working, we got a flood of people trying to sign up,” Quigley said.
The federal government has announced it will not extend the deadline beyond March 31 to make up for the lost two months.
“All of our 13 enrollment specialists are booked until March 31,” Diaz said. “And we have 4,000 families on the waiting list that are interested in applying.”
While the website functions better than it did when it was first launched, it also malfunctions from time to time under the weight of demand.
“Two days ago it went down for a day,” Diaz said. “We had to reschedule the appointments.”
While it is possible for people to sign up on their own, many of the poorer people NHCAC serves have language issues or do not have access to the internet, or are simply confused by the options and need some level of guidance.
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Nearly everybody has to go through a gantlet of identity checks, such as IRS and Homeland Security, before they are in a position to choose their medical options. Some of this has to do with qualifying for extended Medicaid and proving eligibility.
“All this is real time and it creates a burden for the web,” Diaz said.
In some cases, if there is a dispute, then the case needs to go through yet more red tape, and more delays as applicants provide documentation of their legal status or income.
The choices for insurance coverage fall into four basic categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum, and with a myriad of options within each category, depending on how much coverage a person wants or needs, and how big or small the deductible.
The sign-up website does have a provision for Spanish-speaking applicants – a site that at one point functioned better than the English-speaking portion. But this has changed, and both sites are flooded as people around the nation seek to beat the deadline.
“Our counselors take the information, but it is a long process,” Quigley said. “Each application could take as long as an hour and a half. While our workers are doing these seven days a week, nights and weekends, there is a limited amount we can process.”
While other community organizations are also processing cases, NHCAC is shouldering a huge portion of the burden in West New York, Union City, North Bergen, Kearny, and portions of Jersey City.
NHCAC has one specialist in libraries in North Bergen, Kearny and Union City and has two in West New York.
If the federal government does not extend the deadline, then it is unlikely that NHCAC and the other family care centers such as Metropolitan – which shares office space in West New York with NHCAC and has another facility in the Greenville section of Jersey City for southern Hudson County – will be able sign everybody up.
The website is healthcare.gov, or call 1-800-318-2596.
NHCAC’s Hudson County sites are 324 Palisade Ave. in Jersey City, 5301 Broadway in WNY, 714-31st St. in Union City, and 1116-43rd St. in North Bergen.
For more information on possible locations for signup, call (201) 210-0100.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.