Updated: April 10, 2014 6:09AM
Having dealt with high blood pressure for years, Darren Williams knows all too well how expensive doctor visits and prescriptions can be without health insurance.
He has been uninsured since 2008.
So the 47-year-old Pullman resident was interested in applying for health insurance through President Barack Obama’s health care law.
But until late February, Williams said he hadn’t taken the step to enroll because he hadn’t had the time.
That changed, though, when he happened to meet a navigator at Harold Washington Library downtown near where his fiancee was getting help for her taxes.
“It was right here. It was two-for-one,” Williams said, referring to his fiancee getting her taxes done and him applying for Medicaid. “So it worked out beautifully.”
By now, more people are aware of the Affordable Care Act, said workers who are paid by the state or the federal government to help get people signed up. The next challenge, though, is getting people like Williams across the finish line to enroll in a plan in this final month of open enrollment before a tax penalty kicks in.
A February poll by Kaiser Family Foundation found just about a quarter of uninsured Americans are aware of the March 31 deadline to sign up for coverage, and just over six in 10 say they know little or nothing about the ACA’s health insurance exchanges.
The so-called navigators or in-person counselors are targeting areas where uninsured people — such as taxi drivers, restaurant workers, community college students and Latinos — would likely be to make sure they know that March 31 is the last day they can buy an insurance plan until later this year.
For instance, VNA Health Care, which has eight locations in suburban areas, has distributed more than 50,000 door-hangers to residents in Aurora and Elgin.
As of March 1, Get Covered Illinois has a “Road 2 Coverage” recreational vehicle that’s visiting parts of Chicago; Marion, Ill.; East St. Louis, Ill., and other locations known to have high numbers of uninsured residents, and handing out information about enrollment.
The state and some insurers will also expand on advertisements, they said.
Buying an insurance plan through the online marketplaces at the federal website HealthCare.gov is only supposed to be for uninsured or underinsured people who have an income between 133 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level. That works out to up to $45,960 for an individual and up to $94,200 for a family of four. Those who make less should qualify for Medicaid and can enroll at anytime without penalty.
About 4 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through the exchanges as of Tuesday.
Most navigators said interest continues to increase as March 31 approaches.
Barb Silnes, a navigator at Jane Addams Resource Corp. since October, though, said this month has been “steady, but light” — February was busier.
“I’m getting people who are somewhat window shopping and want to wait until March 31, but I would say the majority are coming in and buying,” Silnes said.
Bill B., a 62-year-old North Center resident who declined to give his full name, bought a silver plan on HealthCare.gov last week with help from Silnes. Because he qualified for a tax credit under the law, his new plan will cost him $400 a month, with a deductible of $1,500. He had been paying $920 a month, with a deductible of $5,000 for his previous insurance plan.
“You know, I thought what difference is it going to make [enrolling earlier],” Bill said. “But now that I’ve seen how much money I’m making, I realize I’ve wasted a lot of money waiting.”
Some navigators are reporting that even with a tax credit, higher income uninsured people are finding the insurance plans offered by Obamacare to be too expensive, especially the deductibles on them.
“These individuals usually opt to pay the fine instead of paying for the plan,” Ranjana Paintal, program manager for Asian Health Coalition, which provides navigators for those who speak Spanish or other South Asian languages.
Contributing: Max Rust