With health insurance demand on the rise, volunteers chip in
on December 23, 2013
OAKLAND – It’s not your average Saturday afternoon in the “teen room” at Rockridge Public Library. Carl Holland walks down a row of computers, peering over the shoulders of people navigating Covered California’s website.
“How are we doing over here?” he asks Lawrence Lincoln, an Alameda resident who has hit a snag in his pursuit of health insurance through the online exchange. A self-employed contractor, proving income is complicated for Lincoln, and he’ll have to produce more documents to get a price estimate. Holland plots strategy with Lincoln; others up and down the row wait for help too. More people wait for a computer in a line that snakes out the door.
Everyone came for information about the insurance options available thanks to the Affordable Care Act – just two days before the first enrollment deadline. At the same time, all across Oakland residents have flocked to other workshops held by volunteers and community organizations working to get California’s uninsured acclimated to the new system.
Monday is the final day to enroll for people looking for coverage to start in January, while March 31 is the cut off for open enrollment. As demand for insurance surges, people like Holland, the President of Volunteering for Oakland, have stepped up to help make an often complex process less daunting. Holland is a Certified Insurance Agent trained by Covered California to advise potential customers of their options and to guide them through the enrollment process.
With call centers inundated with questions and lengthy wait times, volunteers like Holland and his team serve as a bridge in the process.
“A lot of people come in having tried to enroll but couldn’t make sense out of it,” he said.
“Some people are just looking for a plan to meet their needs. But a lot of it is just hand holding.”
Kim Hunn, 54, a Berkeley resident scoping out her options, arrived with questions before starting her process at home. Uninsured for the last 20 years, Hunn says that up until now she’s been lucky with her health, but at her age would like to know that “if there is a major problem, there’s coverage.” Hunn spends much of her time in Europe and has benefited from its universal health care. A dentist in Spain treated her for 30 Euros, she said, but here prices prevent her from seeking care. After sitting down with a counselor, Hunn is ready to start her search.
According to Holland, the importance of today’s deadline has been somewhat overblown by the media, which has fed an enrollment frenzy. Covered California announced that 53,510 people had enrolled in just a three day period starting Dec. 16. By comparison, that number is nearly 75 percent more than enrollments in the entire month of October. This demand is reflected in the sessions that Volunteering for Oakland have organized.
“It’s become frenetic,” Holland said. “It’s a deadline only in the context of those who need coverage starting Jan. 1. If you miss it, it’s not the end of the world.”
According to a report released this month by the California Health Care Alliance, seven million California residents are uninsured, and the percentage of uninsured under age 65 is among the highest in the country. In this environment, Volunteering for Oakland is just one of many groups in the city trying to help communities in the initial stages of the rollout.
The NAACP has organized information sessions throughout the city, as have community groups targeting minority populations with language barriers.
“There’s enough need in Oakland that it’s not a competitive thing [among groups],” Holland said. “All of us are trying to find ways to make things better for the people of Oakland.”
Lincoln, one of the uninsured residents, thinks he’s on his way to being insured thanks to the volunteer effort.
Holland hands Lincoln his business card and tells him to give him a call if questions come up at home, when he’s digging up the additional documents.
“Now he’s my guy,” Lincoln says. “I came in totally ignorant but he’s taught me enough that I can keep going with this.”
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