Obamacare deadline enlivens volunteer offices

Dorothy Johnson, a field organizer for Get Covered PA, in the group's Chestnut Street office. "It's important for everyone to have health care," she said.
Dorothy Johnson, a field organizer for Get Covered PA, in the group's Chestnut Street office. "It's important for everyone to have health care," she said.
Posted: April 17, 2014

Like sands through the hourglass, so passed the last minutes to enroll in Obamacare - with an extension.

And since the government had decreed that Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. was the final, no-joke, we really, really mean it this time deadline, the atmosphere was tense at Get Covered PA.

Racing against the clock, in its scruffy subleased space on the seventh floor of a Chestnut Street office building, a half-dozen volunteers, community activists, and grassroots organizers made more than 1,000 calls in a last-ditch effort to help the region's uninsured get signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The federal exchange and the state marketplaces, after a horrid start, exceeded expectations by signing up 7.5 million people nationally, plus an additional three million on Medicaid, from Oct. 1 through March 31. And that doesn't include an estimated 7.8 million people who signed up directly with insurers.

Local activists were working this week to add to those totals.

With cellphones mashed against their ears and a memorized script, they worked through pages upon pages of phone numbers they had collected over the last six months from people who had filled out forms or signed up online, asking for help getting enrolled.

From the cacophony of the callers' earnest questions and patient answers, shreds of dialogue made it clear that there were still throngs of eligible people who would miss out.

"Is Eugene available to speak?"

"So, what time tomorrow do you plan on completing the application?"

"Hi, I'm Meghan. I'm calling because there may still be a chance for you to get affordable health care."

"Do you currently have . . . Do you currently . . . I'm sorry . . . So do you currently have health insurance?"

"Yes. There are three ways to do it. You can go online ( www.healthcare.gov), call the 800 number (1-800-318-2596), or there are places all around the city where you can walk in and they'll help you complete the application."

Every so often, a caller would brighten, having scored a winner.

"Oh, perfect! So, great! Yes, $18 a month for dental is amazing."

Get Covered PA, a project of Enroll America, a pro-health law group, has a staff of 14 statewide. It receives no federal support and is funded by private donations, charities, and grants, said Paydon Miller, the larger group's communications lead for Pennsylvania.

Since last fall, the staff has been holding information sessions, canvassing faith and community health centers, setting up stations at Reading Terminal Market, supermarkets, and neighborhood hubs, and meeting with labor groups, getting the word out about where to get help completing an application.

"The biggest obstacle has been misinformation," Miller said. Most people mistakenly assumed they could not afford coverage.

"About 76 percent of Pennsylvanians who enrolled got financial assistance for their plan," said Miller, 25, a Wisconsin native who moved to Philadelphia eight months ago to work on the effort.

Some of his volunteers signed up to make calls after they received help from the group in navigating the enrollment process.

Others, like Linda Ragin, are putting in their time out of goodwill.

Ragin, a 65-year-old retired insurance company worker from Mount Airy, said she has health insurance through Medicare.

"It's important for everyone to have health care," she said, scanning her list and making the next call.

Even when the deadline passes, Miller said, the group's work will not end.

The next enrollment period begins Nov. 15, although individuals may qualify for special enrollment if they experience certain life-changing events.

"We're going to analyze our data, see what worked best, and learn how to reach more people more effectively the next time," he said.


mdribben@phillynews.com

215-854-2590 @dribbenonphilly

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