HOUSTON – As an independent truck driver, Orthon Nunez has long gone without health insurance. But with a deadline for signing up for the new health insurance exchanges approaching, he decided the time had come.
“I tried yesterday for the first time,” he said. “I was able to create an account, but it never let me in.”
Nunez discovered navigating the government’s website wasn’t as easy as he was led to believe. So on the last day before the deadline, he sought out help.
“You might call it ignorance,” he said. “I didn’t even know where to start, how to get it done, properly, you know, without making any mistakes.”
He had plenty of company. Uninsured procrastinators finally trying to buy health insurance swarmed to groups helping people sign up for coverage, trying to dodge the penalties that will kick in with next year’s income tax bills.
“The crowds have been tremendous, actually,” said Melisa Garcia, the vice president for financial services at Legacy Community Health Services in Houston. “These last few weeks have been extremely busy. We were open with extended hours over the weekend and we had full clinics all weekend long and we are jam packed today.”
The same scene played out at community centers throughout the Houston area, where the health insurance system’s so-called “navigators” dealt with long lines of uninsured Texans. Despite long weekend and night hours designed to help beat the deadline, uninsured people still dropped by on the last day asking for help with the government’s website.
“It’s a little frustrating,” said Frank Cook, who works part-time jobs selling food and drinks at sporting arenas. “I’d rather just go in and do it physically, because who knows? The Internet might break down when you’re in the process of filling out the paperwork. Might need to start all over again.”
Indeed, the website broke down again Monday. Almost as frustrating were the delays people endured after they telephoned for help.
“I feel for the clients, because I want to enroll them and they want to enroll as well and get this done for them,” said Yvette Escalante, who’s helped countless people sign up for health care at Legacy Community Health Services. “So yes, it does get a little frustrating when the system’s down.”
Nonetheless, the Obama Administration said more than 6 million people have signed up in the new health insurance exchanges nationwide. And organizers recruiting here say about 300,000 have signed up here in Texas.
Still, navigators helping people sign up say they’ve talked to many uninsured Texans who’ve decided they either can’t afford or insurance or they’d rather pay a penalty.
“And it’s not the right way to go,” said Al Ortiz of the Texas Organizing Project, which has spent months signing people up for insurance. “It’s $95 per person per household, $47.50 per child per household. And then it increases each year after that. So your money is better spent getting affordable health insurance for your family.”
With the deadline only hours away, navigators were advising uninsured people who haven’t yet signed up to at least try to register with the government’s trouble-prone website. Even if those taxpayers don’t actually finish buying their policies because of website glitches, the government says it will continue working on signing them up without penalties.
But those who end up missing the deadline and have no health insurance will probably have to pay at $95 in fines, a penalty that will only rise in coming years.