Deadlines loom for Texans seeking health care

Some deadlines loom for people in Texas signing up for federal health care assistance

Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) -- Officials in Texas rushed to sign people up for health plans Monday as they faced a looming deadline for those buying coverage under the new federal health care law to have their plans kick in Jan. 1.

In Dallas and Houston, hundreds of people trained to assist with enrollment worked the day before Christmas Eve, forgoing a vacation day that many others enjoyed.

Open enrollment continues through March 31, but for those who want their insurance plans to go into effect on New Year's Day, Monday was supposed to be the last day to enroll in Texas and many other states. But the federal agency overseeing the rollout, expecting a rush of people to enroll at the last minute, extended the deadline through Tuesday, giving them an extra day to choose a plan.

"We expect, just like we see on all deadline days, that we'll see a crush of people," Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told The Associated Press, encouraging people to get online or call immediately to enroll.

"Don't wait till late afternoon or nightfall when the biggest procrastinators will be clogging up the phones and the websites," Jenkins said.

About 25 percent of Texas residents, or some 6 million people, lack health insurance. It is the highest rate in the nation. Caring for those people costs millions of taxpayer dollars annually, officials said. So the opportunity to get them health insurance through President Barack Obama's signature law is key to lowering those costs, Jenkins said. About 14,000 Texans enrolled for coverage in October and November.

In Dallas and Houston, health care workers and nonprofit groups doing outreach to the uninsured held dozens of events in recent days.

"We did have a lot of events leading up to this day. We had one on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, pretty much at least one, usually two or three events, every day last week," said Mario Castillo, who is leading outreach and enrollment efforts in a 13-county region surrounding Houston for Enroll America, a nonprofit whose mission it is to get people coverage under the new law.

Among the people who turned out Monday were many eager to enroll for coverage that would begin Jan. 1, Castillo said. Many people wrongly believed they also had to pay on Monday for Jan. 1 coverage, so part of the job was explaining that payments were not due at the same time, Castillo said.

Getting Texans to enroll is crucial to the law's success. In Dallas County alone, Jenkins said, taxpayers spent some $685 million in 2012 to care for those who lack insurance, much more than the $430 million the county collected in hospital taxes.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry, like many other conservative Republicans, has staunchly opposed the law. The state deferred to the federal government to set up Texas' enrollment website, and it rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid. As a result, more than a million people could remain uninsured because they will not qualify for subsidized insurance under the exchange but will also earn too much to qualify for Medicaid in its current configuration in Texas.

Still, every person that gets coverage will help decrease the strain on the system.

"It's key from a public health standpoint, and it's the most important thing we can do economically to keep our taxes low and to keep our economy strong," Jenkins said.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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