Health Care

In year two of Obamacare, some enrollment worries remain

Helen Shaheen, a navigator with the Health Council of South Florida, helps Dora Welter enroll online for coverage under the Affordable Care Act at Miami Dade College's Kendall campus on Wednesday.
Helen Shaheen, a navigator with the Health Council of South Florida, helps Dora Welter enroll online for coverage under the Affordable Care Act at Miami Dade College's Kendall campus on Wednesday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Dora Welter panicked when she learned her monthly premium for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act was going up from $6.31 to $125.

“It’s not possible for me to pay that much,” said Welter, a part-time hairdresser from Kendall who’s planning to enroll in nursing school next year.

Consumer advocates and regulators have warned the public for months that people who signed up for coverage last year might pay higher prices in 2015. With a year of data under their belts, insurers are adjusting to the market in Miami-Dade County by eliminating unpopular or unprofitable plans and changing premiums and benefits for the ones that remain.

Welter, 49, wants to start a new career in medicine after working as a dental assistant for years. Her dream is to work in a hospital.

“My father was diabetic and he was in and out of hospitals for five years before he died,” Welter said. “It’s important for us to help people when they are most in need. There’s nothing when you’ve lost your health. People feel so violated and alone.”

Welter graduated from Florida International University with a degree in hospital administration in August but hasn’t found a job in her field. She’s working in a salon to pay her bills.

Her degree did help her in one immediate way though: Graduating from college allowed Welter to qualify for a “life change” exemption from the federal government last summer and sign up for an Obamacare plan. The plan cost a little more than $6, thanks to a $340 federal subsidy, but it ends Dec.31 and she must re-enroll for 2015.

Normally, consumers must sign up during the period called “open enrollment.” This year’s enrollment ends Feb.15.

“I’m healthy, I exercise, I’m not overweight,” Welter said. “But this is Miami and car accidents happen all the time. I’m afraid I may end up in a hospital and I can’t afford the expense.”

Consumers must choose a plan by Dec.15 for coverage that begins Jan.1. and Welter knew she had to beat that deadline. “One hundred twenty-five dollars a month is not affordable,” she said.

She’s taking classes at Miami Dade College and while browsing the school’s website saw an advertisement for free one-on-one appointments at the campus library with trained staffers from the Health Council of South Florida, a nonprofit created by state legislation.

The Health Council is offering advice to consumers signing up for coverage under the health law in partnership with the University of South Florida, which received a $5.38million “navigator” grant from the federal government.

Joe Pena, director of federal relations for MDC, Miami Dade College, said it was part of the school’s mission to educate and inform.

“The majority of our students are working students. They’re the first to go to college in their families and healthcare is important for them,” Pena said.

“With all the misinformation that was out there, and quite frankly a lot of it was just noise, we thought it was important for our students and their families and our community that we offer this service,” Pena added.

After 1 1/2 hours with a navigator in a small study space at the college’s Kendall campus library, Welter chose a new plan that offers similar benefits to her old one for $31.53 per month. Her subsidy is staying the same. It’s not as good a deal but still affordable, Welter said.

Enrolling included a few complications. Welter had to contact the call center three times for help resetting her password but she said using a navigator to help her enroll was worth the time.

“I’m so happy I came,” she said.

As Welter talked with the navigator, a janitor from the library’s staff approached.

“I’d like to schedule an appointment,” said Yurina Borjas, 22, who came to the U.S. from Cuba nine months ago.

Borjas said she only worked part-time and couldn’t get insurance through the college. She saw a sign advertising the health law in the library and is hoping she can qualify for a subsidy.

“I saw a doctor in Cuba for free,” Borjas said. “Here the care is better but it’s more expensive.”

Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.

This article was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

How to get enrollment help

In-person assistance is available at five Miami Dade College campuses several times a week. To set up an appointment at a location in your area, call the Health Council of South Florida (786-708-0836), Cognosante (786-762-3024) or the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida (877-553-7453).

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