Those Eager for Health Coverage Sign Up as Federal Marketplace Opens Saturday

The press event there might have helped get the word out, but the museum was not a popular destination for those seeking assistance on the first day of open enrollment. In fact, officials said turnout throughout the city was low, thanks to a snowstorm that cut into both TV promotions and people’s willingness to travel.

By 2 pm, Barb Wynveen, a navigator with the Carmella Rose Health Foundation stationed at the Rock Hall, said she’d had no walk-ins, and all of her half-dozen scheduled appointments had been a bust. A few were no-shows. One elderly man already covered by Medicare came in confused, and was sent home. And a woman called from nearby in her car, saying she couldn’t afford the $10 downtown parking.

So there were hitches – but everyone agreed things had improved since last year. Ohio uses the federal marketplace website, Healthcare.gov, and while it was slowing down by mid-afternoon, for the most part, it seemed to be working.

And other assistance locations were busier. At Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Services, a clinic primarily serving the poor, certified application counselor Khalil Ismail met with Prempal Kaur, a woman in her 50s who spoke mostly Punjabi, and her daughter, Ravinder Kaur, who translated.

Ismail asked Ravinder Kaur about her mother’s family and financial circumstances.

“She’s a citizen. She’s a widow, a single mother. And she works at the Convenient Food Mart, where she makes minimum wage,” explained Kaur, who had traveled from Chicago to help her mother apply for insurance coverage. Kaur said she had tried to enroll her mother last year, but had lots of technical problems with the Healthcare.gov website. She said they never got anything in the mail about coverage.

Kaur said this year, when she saw fliers about the open enrollment period, she made an appointment to get help. She said her mom has high blood pressure and thyroid problems, and was avoiding going to the doctor because she couldn’t pay the bills.

Ismail did some quick calculations to get Prempal Kaur’s approximate annual income. He found she didn’t qualify for the Marketplace plans – but she did qualify for coverage under Ohio’s Medicaid expansion.

Since Medicaid doesn’t have a designated open enrollment period, Prempal Kaur actually could have gotten coverage sooner. But many of those helping people during the Marketplace open enrollment period say the publicity it generates brings in many people like the Kaurs. They’re not necessarily clear on the specifics, but they’ve heard there might be affordable options for people like them.

During the application process, Ravinder Kaur mentioned her mom actually needed medical attention now. She had what looked like an infection on her leg, a possible allergic reaction to a prescription she was taking. Kaur had called another clinic, and learned a blood test would cost about $300.

Ismail, the counselor, told them that her mom could probably get seen by a doctor at the clinic that day, for free. Ohio takes part in a “presumptive eligibility” program for just these types of situations, he said. The application took only a few minutes.

After about half an hour, Ismail has completed that application and the one for Medicaid coverage. He walked the two women to the front desk and told the receptionist they needed to see a doctor.

Ravinder Kaur said she felt relieved. The coverage would help her mom live a healthier life.

“It’ll change a lot for her, because without having Medicare or Medicaid or health insurance, she is suffering a lot, for her health, and she can’t see the doctor,” Kaur said. “I feel more comfortable for my mother.”

Later that night, volunteers with a group called Get Covered America showed up at more unusual locations to try to reach people who might not stop by the libraries, clinics and churches where much of the assistance was available.

Shaina Rood, a pre-med student at Cleveland State University, eyed the fans of alt country musician Fred Eaglesmith as they filed into the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern before a 9 o'clock show.

She approached a man gingerly. "Excuse me. Hi. I’m Shaina Rood. I’m a volunteer with Get Covered America," she said, then asked the man if he or anyone he knew needed health insurance.

If people were interested, Rood got their contact information so someone could follow up later.

The man Rood talked to already had insurance. But another volunteer had success down the street, at the Caribbean restaurant, The Callaloo Café.

Owner Klvin Cadiz said he’d like to see about getting his four part-time workers covered. "Because you never know what could happen," he said. "Even simple cutting-up stuff, they could lose a finger."

Cadiz said he could use insurance, too. He's a citizen of Trinidad and says he tries to save any medical needs for when he visits there, since health care is free.

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