By Tammy Daniels
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Massachusetts has a good record on insuring its residents — 96.3 percent of the population is covered.
So it’s that 3.7 percent without insurance that health officials are focusing on during this open enrollment period.
“We’re really down to a small number of people … We want them to know that insurance is important not only for health wise in order to be able to go to the doctor and get help when your sick or hurt but also financially,” said Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the state’s Health Insurance Connector Authority, on Friday morning. “It’s a lot cheaper to go to the doctor when you have health insurance.”
“We’re trying to get the last 4 percent so we’re going to every corner of the state to get this message out,” state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, told media at Tapestry Health’s Pittsfield office. “Having everyone covered by health insurance is good for every one of us because that’s what keeps health insurance costs down for all of us. …
“People might think it’s too expensive, but it’s more expensive not to have insurance.”
Open enrollment to buy insurance through the Health Connector runs through Jan. 31, 2016; the deadline to be covered beginning Jan. 1 is Dec. 23. Residents can enroll through the website, mahealthconnector.optum.com, or change their insurance options.
But for that small percentage of the population, signing up for insurance online may be too daunting for a number of reasons, particularly access to the Internet.
Christopher Cappucci, state Rep. Paul Mark’s legislative director, said about 75 percent of the Peru Democrat’s district has no access to broadband.
“We’re not going to end rural poverty if people are sick and have no access to telecommunications,” he said.
Access to health care was just “one of a hundred examples” Farley-Bouvier said she could give that are related to lack of Internet and transportation in the Berkshires.
If they can get to Tapestry or Ecu-Health Care, they will find trained personnel to help navigate them through the online process.
Tapestry’s navigator Eryn Brewer said people may also be simply scared of the technology.
“It’s just to be there with them and help them go through the process,” she said.
Karen Baumbach, the new executive director of Ecu-Health Care, said it’s also about helping applicants understand how to maintain their insurance — some are losing their MassHealth simply because they failed to change their address when they move.
“It’s so much more than just an application, it’s providing an education. It’s letting folks know what they need to do, what their responsibilities are,” she said.
Lefferts said navigators can also help applicants understand what plans can offer and what information they need to sign up.
“People think it’s complicated, it’s more than they want to take on … people think it’s expensive,” said Lefferts. “At the very least, we want people to make out an application.”
Those still uninsured are likely to be low or moderate income, he said, and so are likely to be eligible for subsidies and qualify for very low premiums and small co-pays.
“We see a lot of those folks in our clinic so we have a really good net that catches a lot of those uninsured people,” said Alyssa Valbona, Tapestry Health’s Franklin County health services manager. “We can help them sign up and walk them through it … We know that catching rural poverty is definitely challenging.”
Health officials are hoping this enrollment process goes more smoothly — web glitches have plagued the system since it went online in 2013 under the federal Affordable Care Act. Farley-Bouvier thought some people might have tried to sign up in the past and been discouraged by the process.
Baumbach did not see computer issues as being a problem this year.
“This past year, I can say that the computer system has been working wonderfully — leaps and bounds beyond what it’s been,” she said. “We can help individuals make changes, the smallest changes that in the past were difficult to make.”
Applicants can make changes in real time, like phone numbers or resubmitting applications, and see the results immediately.
“It’s really exciting and rewarding to have someone leave your office knowing that they have health insurance and know that they can contact their doctors,” Baumbach said. “When you are talking about the uninsured population, you’re talking about individuals who didn’t have health insurance and they’re at our door because there’s a medical need and it’s urgent.