Insurance helpers hope for smooth sailing after website fix


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and Photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 7:16 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 2 at 7:20 PM

AUSTIN -- At Insure Central Texas' Community Financial Center inside Austin's Highland Mall, more than a dozen people waited patiently Monday morning for help signing up for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Patrick Tobola spent Monday looking for insurance for his older brother who he says has had health issues in the past and is a member of the Texas Health Insurance Pool, a state program to provide coverage for high-risk patients which is set to be eliminated next year. The Austin resident will also soon be shopping for himself after learning his own policy will be canceled as a result of the health care law.

"For my brother I think it'll be better," said Tobola. "For myself, I was paying already $10,000 a year in insurance. I hear that people are shocked to hear that, and hopefully I can get a better premium too now. But who knows?"

Glitches with, the official website of the federal government's health insurance marketplace, have caused headaches for those trying to sign up. Tobola says the site's rocky launch was disappointing to see.

"I would think that we have enough experts that they could have executed a little better," Tobola said.

Faced with a barrage of concerns over persistent website failures and an approaching deadline for his signature legislation, President Obama himself called for a fix by the beginning of December.

"By the time we look back on this next year, the people are going to say this is working well and it's helping a lot of people," Mr. Obama told media at a mid-November White House press conference.

"There's been a lot of anxiety about whether or not the system will work, but people's anxiety has been relieved as we've been able to get people through the application," said Insure Central Texas director Elizabeth Colvin.

After October's frustrating start, Colvin says load times for the website Monday were much quicker and the site had produced far fewer errors. Aside from overall performance issues, Colvin indicated a number of more specific fixes the latest website overhaul addressed.

"It wasn't calculating premium tax credits correctly for people under 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level for states that didn't expand Medicaid," said Colvin. "That was a fix they really needed to make because people weren't getting the credit they expected. The other problems were just where people were getting stuck in the application. It duplicated dependents, we weren't able to fix those. So those problems should be gone."

With some 80 plans to choose from in Central Texas Alone and the December 23 deadline approaching to purchase an insurance plan on the marketplace in time to take effect January 1, Colvin warns not to wait too long.

"Given the dramatic changes and improvements we've seen since we started October first, I'm very optimistic that people will be able to get on, complete the application and get insurance," said Colvin.

"I do encourage people to start now. Don't wait until the 23rd, because it is a process and it takes time to get through," added Colvin. "It's an overwhelming process, and the questions really are tied to the tax return that you'll file in 2015. So it's important that you understand the tax terminology when they ask for your household or estimated income so the application is answered correctly. And our trained volunteers can do that."

Insure Central Texas' three Austin locations have guided some 2,000 people through the process so far, according to Colvin. Part of Foundation Communities, free assistance is available at community financial centers located at Highland Mall, 2600 W. Stassney in South Austin and at Lifeworks at 835 N. Pleasant Valley Rd. in East Austin.

For those who opt to navigate the website on their own, Colvin also offers one of many tips her staff has compiled over the past few weeks.

"For people who are stuck in their application and just can't get past duplicate dependents or something like that, I would encourage them to just create a new account," said Colvin. "Start over from scratch. We've had success with people doing that."

Despite the difficulties, Tobola says he's appreciative of the help. Unimpressed by the current state of the health insurance industry, he hopes the new health care law will eventually work out.

"It was time for a change," said Tobola. "I knew any kind of a change was going to be painful, I just hope that we can progress now. This is a start."

Go here for KVUE's coverage of the Affordable Care Act.