Along with free haircuts, dental exams, flu shots and food, volunteers at Wednesday’s Project Homeless Connect event in Tacoma offered something that for decades has been only a dream: free medical insurance.
Working with laptop computers at the Tacoma Dome, volunteers signed up 140 homeless or recently homeless people for the expanded Medicaid coverage that will become available Jan. 1 through the federal Affordable Care Act.
“It was a huge success,” said Roberta Marsh, executive director of South Sound Outreach, one of the prime organizers of the annual homeless health jamboree.
For the homeless, medical expenses often are a make-or-break issue, Marsh said.
“Forty-six percent of homeless people are homeless because of medical issues and lack of insurance,” she said.
Among many other changes, the Affordable Care Act expands Medicaid eligibility beyond families, pregnant women and those with disabilities. In Pierce County, an additional 30,000 people will be eligible for Medicaid, said Kayla Scrivner, a community liaison specialist with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
“We’re trying to get everybody we possibly can,” said Scrivner, who helped organize the sign-up process at the Dome. “This event has such a great reputation; we knew a lot of people would show up.”
Anyone who has a computer can sign up themselves at the state’s website — wahealthplanfinder.org.
At the Dome event, attendees had personal help. Sixteen specially trained and certified “navigators,” provided one-on-one assistance.
In all, Marsh said, 1,392 people attended the annual homeless health jamboree – not a record, but close.
The doors to the Exhibition Hall opened at 9 a.m., but people were camped out in sleeping bags near that entrance before dawn. Marsh said that by the time she arrived at 6:30 a.m., the line stretched nearly to the freeway on East D Street.
Many already qualify for health care under the existing Medicaid system. As of Jan. 1, 2014, Medicaid coverage will be available for childless adults who earn less than $15,856. That’s a population that includes many homeless people and who are among the most difficult to reach.
Sarah Niemeyer was among those who signed up Wednesday.
Niemeyer, 57, said thousands of dollars in medical bills she incurred as a result of an injury at work and then a subsequent car accident put her on the street in 2011, despite having worked her entire life.
Unable to keep up the mortgage payments on her mobile home, Niemeyer packed a few belongings and her three cats into her car.
“I went camping for a year,” Niemeyer said, making light of a situation that left her living in a tent at various out-of-the-way places in Pierce and King counties, packing a portable toilet in the trunk of her car.
During her yearlong campout, she said, coyotes killed two of her three cats.
Niemeyer didn’t qualify for Medicaid because she was not considered disabled.
She arrived at Homeless Connect early, and, after a 20-minute session with an insurance navigator, she was delighted to learn she will have health insurance on Jan. 1.
“I qualified for insurance,” Niemeyer said. “Praise the Lord.”
Kathy Gordon, who has a chronic seizure disorder, attended Wednesday’s event in a wheelchair, accompanied by a service dog who she says licks her face to warn her in advance of a seizure.
Because the Tacoma woman is classified as disabled, she already qualifies for Medicaid. She said she went to Homeless Connect because she had questions about how things are likely to change for her because of the new law.
“I’ve got a lot of questions,” she said. “If this law is going to provide free health care for people who can’t afford it, I think it’s a good thing.
“Lots of times, though,” she said, “things can look really great on paper, and then when they get in the process of trying out, they fall apart.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693