Durham County

Counseling events help people find health insurance

Antonyo Thompson receives help from Mary Ann Woehrel in selecting a health insurance plan Sunday afternoon at the Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham. A commercial dump truck driver, Thompson said he had struggled to find an affordable plan until Woehrel, a certified counselor, helped him review plans on a government website. The deadline to buy a plan to have coverage by Jan. 1 is Tuesday.
Antonyo Thompson receives help from Mary Ann Woehrel in selecting a health insurance plan Sunday afternoon at the Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham. A commercial dump truck driver, Thompson said he had struggled to find an affordable plan until Woehrel, a certified counselor, helped him review plans on a government website. The deadline to buy a plan to have coverage by Jan. 1 is Tuesday. dkane@newsobserver.com

Antonyo Thompson, a dump truck driver, struggled to find affordable health insurance for himself and his spouse.

He might have started 2016 without health care coverage if he had not been invited to talk with a specialist at Durham’s Lincoln Community Health Center. There, after about an hour spent reviewing plans with Mary Ann Woehrel, Thompson found one that will give him some peace of mind for next year.

“There were a lot of other plans out there I didn’t see, that she helped me with,” said Thompson, 43, of Durham.

Tuesday is the deadline for people to lock into a plan under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in order to have coverage by Jan. 1. That deadline triggered numerous events around the state this weekend by nonprofit organizations to help people navigate the federal health exchange for affordable plans that meet their needs.

Those who don’t find health coverage by Jan. 31 face a bigger problem: A federal fine costing individuals $695 or up to $2,085 for families, or 2.5 percent of household incomes. That fine has gone up from the past two years.

About 460,000 people in North Carolina are enrolled in ACA plans, the fourth highest in the nation. North Carolina is among the majority of states that have not created their own insurance exchanges, relying instead on the federal government’s.

Insurers providing coverage through the federal exchange have signaled that premiums for their plans are going up, in some cases dramatically. They cite rising health care costs.

But that doesn’t mean people can’t find affordable plans, said Aaron White, an organizer for Enroll America, a nonprofit that promotes the ACA and helps people find plans.

“A lot of the people that we are seeing are re-signing,” White said.

White was at the Lincoln center this weekend greeting people as they came in to meet with eight counselors. About 50 people visited Saturday. Sunday was much slower, with roughly 20 people stopping by.

Sofia Mejia, 42, of Durham, was among them. She works for a Morrisville company cleaning lab equipment. For the past three years, she has been relying on a charity care program at Lincoln.

But after sitting down with a counselor, she found a government-subsidized plan with a $28 monthly premium and a $5 co-pay for in-network care.

Mejia speaks limited English, but she found the words to describe how she felt after signing up. “Yes, I’m happy,” she said.

White said people shouldn’t necessarily be deterred by higher insurance rates, because federal subsidies help ease the burden. He said 92 percent of those who received insurance under the ACA last year received some amount of federal subsidy.

The average monthly premium was $95. White said the average for 2016 isn’t known yet.

Since it was a slow day Sunday, Pat Dombrosky and Linda Dunlap picked up their phones and called people to see if they would be interested in setting up appointments with experts to help them find an affordable plan.

Dombrosky and Dunlap are independent insurance agents who volunteered to help people on Sunday. They said they know too many cases in which the lack of health insurance created serious health and financial risks.

Dunlap spoke of a middle-aged woman she had signed up two months earlier, who came up to her and tearfully thanked her. The woman hadn’t had insurance in decades.

“I know you don’t remember me,” the woman told Dunlap, “but I can not tell you what a blessing you have been to me by getting me insurance.”

Need help finding a plan?

For free help enrolling in a plan, call 855-733-3711 for an appointment or visit GetCoveredAmerica.org/Connector

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