March 25, 2014

Enrollment deadline for Affordable Care Act looms

The March 31 deadline for enrolling for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act is only a week away. But there’s still time for area residents to get free help in signing up.

The March 31 deadline for enrolling for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act is only a week away. But there’s still time for area residents to get free help in signing up.

Trained counselors will be available Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Georgetown Memorial Hospital; Friday from 8-to-8 at Waccamaw Community Hospital; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Loris Public Library; and March 31 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Chapin Memorial Library in Myrtle Beach.

Jade Berkley, a counselor with Little River Medical Center, said uncertainty and negative publicity about the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, have discouraged people from enrolling.

Uninsured people eligible to purchase health insurance through Obamacare face a federal tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their income – whichever is higher – if they remain unenrolled in a health plan after March 31.

Berkley said questions from Horry County residents tend to be much the same as questions asked nationwide.

Am I eligible? How can I find the best insurance option for me? What do I do for medical care if I don’t qualify for the program? What happens if I don’t enroll?

Often, the first question is: Why should I care?

“You can see a definite correlation between the rate of disease and other health problems with people who have no health insurance,” said Georgetown Hospital System spokeswoman Amy Stevens.

People without insurance are less likely to receive treatment for chronic health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“There’s a lot that people don’t know and many misperceptions,” said Berkley, during a recent informational meeting attended by a dozen people at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Little River. “There’s not a sense of urgency in our community to have health insurance. People don’t understand the importance of it.”

Berkley and other trained counselors from LRMC, GHS (Georgetown Memorial Hospital and Waccamaw Community Hospital), St. James-Santee Family Health Center and Georgetown Outreach Ministries have helped people enroll since February.

“We’ve been really pleased with the attendance,” Stevens said Friday. “We’ve helped around 200 people enroll and we’ve helped many others get Medicaid.”

At the enrollment sessions, attendees receive individual assistance from counselors and leave with their eligibility status known and their enrollment completed. All assistance is confidential. People who do not qualify for coverage will be advised on Medicaid and other healthcare options.

“The counselors help each individual walk through the process,” Stevens said. “We want to give assistance in getting healthcare to as many people as possible.

Enrollment can be completed by phone as well as online at HealthCare.gov.

Nagging problems with HealthCare.gov and a general lack of understanding may be discouraging people from enrolling.

“People are afraid to do the stuff,” said Sondra Ward, who presides over social matters at St. Paul. “My (enrollment) really was easy. If you give the information, you won’t have a problem.”

At St. Paul, an LRMC counselor told of helping a woman with an annual income of $13,000 sign up to pay less than $14 per month for coverage that included a $150 deductible and a maximum out-of-pocket charge of $2,000. Counselors explained that income and household size are the two major determinants of the cost of premiums.

According to state figures, an estimated 700,000 South Carolina residents do not have health coverage and 55,830 state residents signed up for a coverage plan though HealthCare.gov by March 1. Adults 18 to 35, a demographic needed to keep costs down, have accounted for only one-quarter of S.C. enrollments. Adults 45-64 have accounted for 54 percent.

“There’s a lot of misinformation on TV,” said the Rev. Johnathan Greene, pastor of St. Paul AME, who attended the meeting at his church. “We’ve got to educate, educate, educate so people have a better understanding.”

Wednesday’s enrollment assistance at Georgetown Memorial Hospital will be in the lobby area between the emergency room and radiology. Friday’s enrollment assistance at Waccamaw Community Hospital will be in the main lobby.

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