For 18 months, Joe Titus constantly worried about getting seriously ill after he lost his medical coverage after he was laid off from his job as a drug and alcohol counselor.
But in just one hour, Titus — who is still unemployed — signed up for health insurance thanks to the Health Benefit Exchange, the state’s online marketplace.
“I feel very relieved. I feel like an average citizen again,” said Titus, 43, of Longview. “It’s one less thing to stress about.”
After technical glitches slowed down the launch of the marketplace on Oct. 1, Washington’s exchange had nearly 10,500 residents signed up for health coverage, the Washington Healthplanfinder reported on Monday, the latest report available.
As of Wednesday, about 25 people enrolled for health insurance with the help of certified in-patient “navigators” at the Cowlitz Family Health Center’s five locations and 14 partner locations.
“We have excellent results, considering the technical glitches,” said Amber Rosewood, spokesperson for the Family Health Center. “We are looking forward to increasing those numbers now that the system is working out its bugs.”
There are more than 1 million Washington residents lacking health insurance. About 280,000 of those people are expected to purchase insurance in the first year of the exchange, which was established under the individual insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
The law requires all individuals to have health insurance starting Jan. 1, and Washington residents have until Dec. 23 to apply for coverage through the exchange. Open enrollment lasts until March 31.
People can make free appointments with the navigators, who help them fill out enrollment applications and answer questions. The process takes at least 30 minutes, or up to 90 minutes for larger families.
When the exchange’s website, the Healthplanfinder, launched last week, users experienced slow loading times and couldn’t complete their applications. Rosewood said those problems have been solved, though navigators still are having trouble when they check personal information against the federal health care “data hub.”
For example, if a person is recently married, the data hub would not be updated.
“Those errors are still showing up. It stops the process a little bit, and you have to go around it,” Rosewood said. “But they’re not hindering us from completing applications.”
The federal government shutdown is not affecting Washington’s exchange, which is state-run, she said.
People can also sign up for health insurance on their own by visiting the exchange’s website or calling its hot line, where navigators can walk them through the online application process.
Rosewood encouraged people to use navigators if they’re confused by the process or their circumstances and eligibility changes.
“Our navigators are trained (so) that each enrollee understands what they’ve signed up for, so they know how to access health care and how to go to the doctor instead of going to the emergency room,” Rosewood said.
After Titus’ initial appointment on Oct. 1 was rescheduled to Wednesday, he was able to sign up for a Premera Blue Cross plan. The plan’s monthly premium is $349.13. However, because Titus has no income he qualified for tax credits to cover his premium and co-pays for his diabetes and asthma medication and doctor visits, reducing his co-pay and premium to zero.
Under the Affordable Care Act, people who qualify for tax credits get advanced payment of the credits and can apply them right away to lower the monthly premium costs.
Titus said his mother — who has been paying about $435 monthly for his medication, which is now covered — was pleased with his new health coverage.
“She was very happy and very relieved,” he said.
Titus said the application process was easier than he thought, and he praised the navigators for helping him.
“It went pretty smoothly,” he said. “If people are concerned or they don’t know (about health insurance), set up an appointment with a navigator and utilize that free service.”
Vancouver resident Guy Kirchgatter also said he had a good experience with in-person navigators, getting help at the Family Health Center’s Woodland Clinic.
In 30 minutes, Kirchgatter was signed up for coverage under the Apple Health plan, the state’s newly expanded Medicaid program, which requires no monthly premiums.
Kirchgatter, 57, has not had health insurance for more than 30 years, but it became a problem two years ago when he developed a hole in his lower intestine.
“I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor,” he said.
Kirchgatter is unemployed and, because of an arrest record, has difficulty finding a job. Although he avoids going to doctors, he has stayed at the hospital at least five times since he was diagnosed.
“It’s ran up into the thousands of dollars,” Kirchgatter said of his hospital bills. “I still have outstanding bills, but I have no way to pay them.”
Kirchgatter said he’s working odd jobs to pay off his bills, and he’s grateful his new coverage takes away some of the financial stress.
“I can go to the doctor and not run up such a giant bill,” he said. “I look at this as a godsend.”