Connecticut’s uninsured begin shopping for Obamacare coverage

New Britain -- Elly Banos set out just after 7:30 Tuesday morning with a mission: Find health insurance.

The New Britain woman knew it was the first day to enroll in coverage that’s becoming available as part of the law commonly known as Obamacare. She’d been waiting for it.

Banos, 48, works part-time as a cashier at Lowe’s, and says she can't afford the company-offered health insurance. She’s been uninsured on and off since losing a full-time job more than four years ago.

“I’m just praying to God every day that I don’t get sick, I don’t get in a car accident,” she said. “It’s like I’m living day to day. And hopefully this will help me.”

Banos was one of thousands of state residents who spent part of the day on the website of Access Health CT, the state’s new health insurance marketplace, which opened for enrollment Tuesday morning. By 4 p.m., the site had had 28,280 unique visitors.

Access Health’s call center took 1,930 calls Tuesday. And 167 applications were processed -- 83 for private health insurance for customers who will get federal subsidies to lower their premium costs, and 84 for Medicaid coverage.

The day wasn’t without glitches, although officials said they didn’t go beyond what was expected. Many people reported problems accessing the Access Health website early in the day.

And Banos, who tried to sign up during an afternoon enrollment fair hosted by Community Health Center Inc., hit a roadblock when she tried to create an account on the Access Health website. Instead of letting her proceed, the system froze, a problem that plagued the others trying to sign up at the enrollment fair.

Still, Banos was heartened that she’d gotten started toward getting coverage. “At least I got my foot in the door,” she said.

The coverage being sold through Access Health doesn’t take effect until January, and officials didn’t expect many people to sign up Tuesday, which would require paying premiums now. Access Health CEO Kevin Counihan said he was expecting only one or two people to enroll on day one.

Margaret Flinter, Community Health Center Inc.’s senior vice president and clinical director, noted that experts had advised that people won’t do their shopping until at least November.

But, she said, “We didn’t want to wait.”

There’s too much work to do, she said, including educating people that having health care coverage is one of the most important steps to getting healthy.

And the sense of urgency about getting covered reminded Flinter of a conversation she had six years ago, when she helped lead a state panel charged with examining ways for Connecticut residents to get quality, affordable health care and coverage. One woman approached Flinter and said, I know you want to do a good job, but can you please hurry up?

Connecticut has about 345,000 uninsured residents, many of whom are expected to qualify for discounted insurance rates through Access Health. Between 55,000 and 60,000 are expected to become eligible for Medicaid on Jan. 1, when the state, as part of Obamacare, raises the income threshold for adults without minor children to qualify.

Community Health Center Inc., one of the state’s 14 health centers, has sites across the state and cares for about 135,000 patients, 26,000 of whom are uninsured.

One of them, Carlos Stakemann, 41, has spent the past two years without health insurance, since he lost his job as a nurse following an injury. He pays out-of-pocket to see his doctor and says he’s grateful for programs that have helped him afford the medication he needs for his asthma.

Stakemann, who attends Central Connecticut State University, learned through the Access Health website that he could qualify for Medicaid.

He ran into a website glitch when he tried to create an account.

Still, he was impressed by the Access Health system so far. “It’s interesting to see how fast it is, how easy it is,” he said. “People will not be confused. It’s self-explanatory.”

Another potential applicant, Bob Ettinger, was waiting to learn more about his options.

When did he last have health insurance? “I can’t even remember,” he said.

Ettinger, 58, said he’s trying to start a business. The New Britain resident has worked on and off, but said it’s particularly hard because he doesn’t have a car and has faced dangerous bicycle treks to jobs in other cities.

He figured he’d qualify for low-cost insurance, or possibly even a plan with no cost. And he said the cost would be a key factor in whether he ultimately gets insurance. “I’ll see, because I don’t have that much money, that’s the issue,” he said.

Banos was more certain that she’ll sign up for coverage. She’s eager to get a physical after years of going without.

“I don’t want to walk around, [wondering], ‘Ok, do I have cancer, do I have something else? By the time I go, is it going to be too late?’” she said.

Even so, Banos has mixed feelings about the health reform law’s requirement that almost all Americans have insurance. Although she wants insurance, Banos said she doesn’t agree with the government telling people to have it. But she said she also sees the other side, that it’s important for everyone to have coverage.

“Hopefully it’ll work out,” she said.

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