Pierce County pushes health insurance sign-ups

Dec. 23 is deadline for Jan. 1 coverage; officials estimate 80,000 still uninsured; most wouldn’t have to pay

Staff writerDecember 15, 2013 

Public health workers in Pierce County say they are pleased with the results of a concentrated health insurance enrollment effort held Saturday, but they acknowledge that the county is a long way from reaching its goal of universal health coverage.

“We were busy throughout the day, but we still have considerable work ahead of us,” said Roberta Marsh, the executive director of the South Sound Outreach organization. “Our work really is cut out for us.”

Eleven social service organizations participated in the “Super Saturday” event, organized by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. It was the last big push by local health organizations to get people signed up for insurance before the Dec. 23 deadline for having coverage by Jan. 1.

According to numbers released Thursday by the state’s insurance marketplace, Washington Health Plan Finder, 18,939 people in Pierce County enrolled in health plans through the month of November.

That leaves at least 80,000 people in the county without health insurance, according to health department estimates.

Of the Pierce County residents who enrolled in November, 92 percent were eligible for the expanded Medicaid program, which means they will pay no premiums for their insurance.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans will be required to have coverage by early next year or risk a fine. The open enrollment period runs through March.

During the Super Saturday event, people who wanted to sign up for insurance through the state’s health plan exchange were able to go to one of 13 assistance sites throughout the county, where specially trained technicians were on hand to guide them through the system.

At the Hilltop Regional Health Care Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a dozen people were waiting in line when the enrollment center opened at 10 a.m., according to Kayla Scrivner, a community liaison specialist with the health department.

“It’s a great beginning,” Scrivner said.

Up the street at South Sound Outreach, where the number of enrollment assistants was expanded from three to nine for the day, Marsh estimated that 35-40 people were successfully enrolled.

“The system is working much better, and people are very pleased,” Marsh said.

The state’s health insurance website — wahealthplanfinder.org — was not functioning for much of last week due to various technical problems Many callers attempting to get answers by phone experienced long, frustrating waits or were advised to call back later.

According to the agency’s enrollment report for November, its call center received 69,829 calls during the month. Of those, it successfully handled 34,614 calls — just under half.

Stephanie Dunkel, a contract employee with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department on loan from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she was deeply affected by the response of the people she has guided through the system to enrollment.

“People are so grateful,” she said. “Just the looks on their faces, the relief that they can have insurance, it’s wonderful to see. Even over the phone you can hear it.

“This is an exciting change,” Dunkel said, “and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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