With the March 31 deadline to begin the enrollment into the Affordable Care Act upon us (the official cut off is now April 7, but the process must begin before March 31), navigators were out in full force throughout the Tampa Bay area this weekend in parks, schools and community centers aiming to add to the 400,00 Floridians who have already signed up.
One of the locations was the Hunt Center at Tampa's Al Lopez Park, which saw steady crowds after 20 cases in the first 30 minutes after opening Saturday morning. Along with potential healthcare recipients the event drew notable guests including Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Alejandra Ceja, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
“I think it's been a success,” said Buckhorn of the efforts to build ACA enrollment. “There were obviously some hurdles to overcome in the beginning, but I think, along with the department of health and human services and all the navigators, that we've really gotten organized, the outreach has been tremendous, both on the federal government side as well as locally. … Nationwide, it's more than six million people. For me here in the Tampa Bay area, any person that I get signed up, is a step in the right direction. That's one person that is going to show up in an emergency room not having any healthcare coverage and be forced to be treated at an emergency level where they could have corrected it earlier in the disease.”
Ceja also felt the sign up period was a success and offered credit to local and grassroots movements that took healthcare.gov from a computer screen to the community.
“I think we found support from the mayors, community partners, community organizations like Enroll America which has been very effective. Definitely continuing to put the importance of having access to quality affordable health care. It's something that we will continue to talk about. It's so critical to reduce the rolls of uninsured members and ensure that if they need care they can afford it.”
Still, there is a ways to go in the Tampa area, which according to Ceja sees 32 percent of it's eligible population still not signed up. Another issue that is beyond the grasps of the local movements is the state legislature's rejection of the $51 billion medicaid expansion, which has created a gap between those who qualify for Medicaid and those who are eligible for the Health Marketplace offered by the ACA.
“It's frustrating,” said Buckhorn of the situation. “There's a segment of the population that will not be able to access this, but could if the Legislature expanded Medicaid, could have healthcare coverage. I think that's unfortunate. I think most healthcare professionals and most reasonable thinking people recognize that's unfortunate.”
Among those who fell into this gap was Alyssa Rucker, who had arrived at Al Lopez Park expecting to sign up without a hassle.
“I don't qualify for Medicaid,” said Rucker as she left dejectedly. “I'm in that in between, so I can't get any healthcare coverage. .. I also don't make quite enough to get the discounts. .. I was jumping for Obamacare until I found out it wasn't going to help me any.”
Rucker did say that she may be able to file for a tax exemption that would reduce her costs.
Among those who found more success was Shakira Ross, who became insured for the first time in her life
“I didn't have insurance at all,” said Ross. “It's hard, because I am on medications, but I'm hoping that what I did today can get me help.”
Navigators are still working and Monday can be found at the Al Lopez Park location,along with locations near USF, at Springhill Park, the St Pete Library (Gibbs Campus), the St Pete Library (Main), the Clearwater Library (Main), and at the Pinellas County Health and Community Services.