Los Banos residents race against deadline for health insurance

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comMarch 16, 2014 

— The countdown for the March 31 Affordable Care Act deadline has begun and with it the rush to enroll in a health insurance plan.

To help people choose the best individual or family health plan, Golden Valley Health Centers held the last of its three outreach and enrollment events in Los Banos on Saturday, the last day to enroll in a health plan to obtain coverage that would begin April 1. Consumers who enroll in a health plan between Sunday and the March 31 deadline may not be able to obtain coverage until after May 1.

Nine bilingual enrollment counselors were present from noon to 5 p.m. to answer questions and register those who had all required documents on hand.

A greater-than-expected turnout kept the counselors busy. Some people had to wait up to two hours to receive help.

Mireya Ortiz, a first-time health care plan applicant, initially had trouble registering online, and had questions Saturday. “I tried online, but it got a little complicated. I think that it’s better to register with someone in person,” Ortiz said in Spanish.

She admits that she procrastinated in enrolling because of her doubts about qualifying for a low-cost health plan.

“My husband owns a small business and we thought that would disqualify us in obtaining an affordable plan,” Ortiz said. “Health care is very expensive here. I would usually go down to Mexico and have my examinations done there. A couple of years ago, I had a CAT scan done in Mexico and it only cost me $200. Who knows how much more I would have paid for the same procedure (in the U.S.).”

Alvaro Cervantes recently moved from San Mateo County to Merced County. Cervantes said he has noticed a larger movement to get people enrolled in this area.

“Maybe it’s because the deadline is getting closer, but I notice a lot more of outreach in this community than I did in San Mateo,” Cervantes said in Spanish.

He is aware that Latino enrollment lags, but doesn’t believe language is the problem. “There’s a lot of help for us in Spanish, so that’s not a big deal,” he said. “I think people are mostly just afraid of the costs. They are unsure how much it will actually cost them. That’s the thing with our people, we don’t like to ask; but if we never ask, we’ll never know.”

Golden Valley’s Community Health Program Manager Mary-Michal Rawling agreed.

“All of our enrollment events have been advertised in Spanish-language media, particularly radio because we find that a lot of Latino families get their information from listening to the radio. It seems to be working because we’ve been getting calls off the hook from Spanish speakers,” Rawling said.

Most of the questions from applicants in recent weeks have been from people living in families with mixed immigration status, she said.

“Some of them are citizens, some of them are legal permanent residents and some are undocumented, and so they’re wondering who can apply. We want to make sure that people know that if they’re citizens or legal permanent residents, they should have insurance of some kind,” Rawling said.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who is known to be a strong supporter of low-cost health care, made an appearance during the enrollment event to acknowledge attendees and emphasize to them the importance of registering in a health care plan.

“I’ve been critical of the administration because I think they did a poor job last fall on the rollout of the program … but even with all the setbacks, people now have an opportunity to get coverage that they would not have available to them otherwise,” Costa said. “I would encourage everyone to come out, get informed and get enrolled.”

Costa then took the opportunity to address the community’s concerns regarding the drought and what he called the “broken immigration system.”

Sun-Star reporter Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

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