Supporters tout busy start to 'Obamacare' enrollment

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Local organizations say they were very busy with calls from people wanting to know if they can get medical insurance under the new Affordable Care Act. Tuesday was the first day to enroll, and groups say their phones were ringing off the hook.

"We had a big turnout today at this health center, as well as other health centers here in Kern County and Fresno," Bill Phelps said at the Clinica Sierra Vista facility on Martin Luther King Blvd. Workers in the assistance office pointed to a notebook filled with names, and said at least 40 people came in before noon asking about coverage.

Covered California is the name for the state's the new health insurance marketplace under so-called "Obamacare." In an email to Eyewitness News, state officials said their Service Center had more than 6,500 calls from the time it opened at 8 a.m. till 9:30 on Tuesday.

"The volume reflects the high interest in getting information," the email statement reads. "and people are telling us they have been anxious to sign up for much-needed coverage."

On Tuesday morning, a local coalition was also trying to drum up enrollment in the insurance plans. "Today beings the first day of a six-month enrollment period that'll end in March 2014," Dolores Huerta Foundation director Camila Chavez encouraged. She said coverage under the new federal law means people cannot be denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, and the plans will be affordable.

"You don't have to wait until you're really sick to get care," Chavez stressed. She said coverage means people can get care sooner, and prevent more expensive medical treatments than if they wait and get sicker.

The coalition helped walk several people through the Covered California website. "It was not difficult actually," Beatriz Campos said. "Just type how many people are in my house, and how much money I'll make."

Nearby, another woman went through the website with a counselor at her side. That woman was told, based on her income level, she would now qualify for the newly-expanded Medi-Cal under the Affordable Care Act, and she won't have to pay anything for that medical coverage.

Plans and costs under Covered California are based on income level and family size, and people can put their specific information into a "calculator" on the website and see which plans they qualify for and what the exact costs would be.

"I think they're going to be a little bit surprised that the premiums are going to be a little bit lower than people originally expected," Phelps said at Clinica Sierra Vista. Many people will also find their premiums are "subsidized" based on their income level. That will drive down their out-of-pocket costs even more.

Who is not covered qualified to get health insurance under the new law? "Individuals who are not documented are not eligible," Phelps explained. Though he says Clinica has a sliding scale of fees to provide care to anyone.

The Kern County Department of Human Services says it's estimated about 52,000 local residents may qualify for income-based and federally-subsidized coverage through the new plans. They say another 38,000 may qualify for the expanded Medi-Cal coverage.

"Medi-Cal will cover more people under the age of 65, including adults without children, people with disabilities and those with income of less than $15,856 for a single individual and $32,499 for a family of four," Human Services says. That office is gearing up to help potential Medi-Cal recipients get information about the changes under the new law.

Meanwhile, other groups are also providing outreach and specially-trained counselors who can help walk people through the Covered California plans. At United Way of Kern County, Della Hodson said their phones "went crazy" on the first morning of enrollment. And, she heard it was busy at other United Way offices in the State.

At Mercy and Memorial Hospitals, Jan Hefner said their phones were also "very busy," and they've been getting calls with questions about the health insurance for the last couple days.

At Covered California, their email status report said "no enrollment numbers will be released until Nov. 15 because applications have to be submitted and accepted before they are counted as successful enrollment."

At Clinica, Phelps said they came across one glitch on the first day of enrollment. They can help people sort through the information, but they can't sign up anyone yet. "We still have a few more hoops to go through that I just recently found out on a webinar," he admitted.

But, Clinica has 24 counselors who are trained in the new plans, and Phelps said they've also gone through background and fingerprint checks. They hope to be ready to enroll people by next week. "We're going to do everything we can to help as many people as possible," he said.

Back at KMC, Beatriz Campos said she was impressed with the information she got from the counselors there. The website didn't look too hard, and the information looks good. Campos says she'll call back and get some more help to actually get signed up for the new health insurance. "I prefer to talk to one of the agencies that are working for that," she said. "Most of them are non-profit organizations, so I know I can trust them."