Texans face delays in health insurance exchange

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Steve Wolf was at his computer by 9 a.m., anxious to see how much it would cost to buy his family health insurance in Texas under the Affordable Care Act.

But he was still trying seven hours later, after repeatedly getting kicked out of the online system that slowed to a snail’s pace on Tuesday due to high demand and technical glitches on the first day of open enrollment.

The self-employed movie and television stunt specialist said he kept getting the same message: try again later. Other Texas residents turned to the phones, flooding local call centers looking for help in a state with the highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation.

“It’s exactly what I expected it to be, though, pretty disappointing, but I didn’t have high expectations,” the 50-year-old father of three said. “It doesn’t save any information, so you have to start from scratch every time.”

At the United Way call center in Austin, which usually gets about 150 calls a day from people looking to enroll in social services, calls had topped 180 by 11 a.m., mostly from people looking for help getting insurance, said Jessica Venson, the center’s director. And at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, three-dozen people trained to help register insurance seekers turned to paper applications to speed up the process because of the slow website.

It was a similar theme at nonprofits, hospitals and clinics statewide that are advertising the program and encouraging people to sign up in Texas, where 25 percent of residents — or about 6 million people — don’t have health insurance.

But the groups are getting no help from the state or its political leadership, who are unanimously and loudly opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Texas is one of 36 states that relied on the federal government to set up its online market place, known as a health care exchange, for consumers to compare and buy health insurance. Texas lawmakers also chose not to expand Medicaid as part of Obama’s law, so more than a million Texas residents living in poverty will not qualify for free or subsidized coverage. In Texas, Medicaid goes only to children, the disabled and impoverished senior citizens.

Stephanie Pollock, who was hired in August as a counselor to work with Houston residents buying coverage, said she spoke to one couple whose $2,100 monthly income made them ineligible to receive Medicaid. She said the wife was a diabetic and the husband had a heart condition, and each took turns alternating 15-day supplies of their medication.

Pollock said the woman told her that she was saving their lives by steering them toward affordable health care.

“I call it the Berlin Wall coming down in America,” Pollock said.

Pollock noted that phones were ringing off the hook on Monday. She said most callers were between the ages of 45 and 63, and had either been unable to find a job since the recession or had a medical condition that rendered them unable to work.

The Obama administration provided grants to groups to help advertise and train counselors, also known as navigators. Tim McKinney, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County, which received the largest grant, said 49 people had passed certification tests to become navigators and were helping residents in 215 of Texas’ 254 counties.

“I knew there had to be glitches, but I am somewhat surprised that it affects the entire system,” McKinney said Tuesday, noting that the website slowdown was also slowing their work.

But he said the problems reflect the intense demand for health insurance across the state. He also noted that enrollment is open for six months.

Led by Gov. Rick Perry, Republican leaders in Texas are some of the country’s biggest critics of the Affordable Care Act. Despite having the highest uninsured rate in the nation — about 34 percent among working-age adults — conservatives insist that government should play no role in providing health care to healthy adults.

Because of Perry’s opposition and uncertainty about new rules he wants to impose on navigators, four government councils chose not to assist people even after initially agreeing to help.

John Buckner, executive director of the Coastal Bend Council of Governments, noted that his organization is reliant on state dollars. Given the strong disapproval for the law among state leaders, Buckner said his group — which serves 12 coastal Texas counties — decided it was unwise to participate.

“There’s a lot of strong feelings about this program in Austin — the legislative level, in the governor’s office,” Buckner said on Monday. “It seems like with all the issues going on right now, it might be best not to get involved with something that’s not being very accepted by the political arena.”

But in Lubbock, The Claborn Agency Inc. is among about 15 insurance companies with whom that the city’s largest hospital, University Medical Center, is partnering to enroll area residents.

Jay Claborn, a partner at the company, said the agency had gotten as many as 25 calls on Tuesday about enrollment and how the law would affect families.

“We don’t really know if it’s going to be positive or negative, as a whole,” he said. “It’s our job to maneuver around negatives and make them positives.”

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Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Austin, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock contributed to this report.

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