Confusion over a looming federal government shutdown could slow today's start of enrollment in Affordable Care Act insurance plans, health officials in Fresno County say.
But that could be a good thing.
"We are expecting some glitches" as California begins enrollment, said Norma Forbes, executive director of Fresno Healthy Community Access Partners. The nonprofit is providing outreach and education about the new health law. "I would encourage people to wait a little bit."
The state has been out front in implementing the new health law, also known as Obamacare, and a new computer system, called CalHEERS, has been developed to handle the volume of insurance and Medi-Cal applications that could be in the millions statewide.
That new technology, however, could be challenging, Forbes said Monday. "Those of us who know the system very well have not had a chance to log on and see how well it works."
As many as 135,700 San Joaquin Valley residents -- 45,000 in Fresno County -- could qualify for the new Medi-Cal program. And another 65,000 in Fresno, Kings and Madera counties -- and more than 100,000 in Tulare and counties north from Merced to San Joaquin -- could qualify for federal tax credits to help pay for insurance plans offered through Covered California, the state's health exchange.
Applicants shouldn't be surprised if they run into problems applying online, Forbes said. "Call for assistance if you need it. Phone banks are supposed to be operational."
Fresno County workers in the Medi-Cal eligibility office have been training for today, said Sanja Kovacevic-Bugay, deputy director of the Department of Social Services. The county has 93 new positions -- 59 dedicated to eligibility.
"I think we're in good shape," Kovacevic-Bugay said. But this will be the first time employees have actually worked on the system.
The Medi-Cal expansion opens the state-federal insurance program to low-income "childless adults" for the first time, and to working parents whose incomes slightly exceed the federal poverty line. The poverty line now stands at $11,490 for a single person, but under expanded Medi-Cal a single person earning less than $15,856, or 138% of poverty, will be eligible.
Word has been slow to spread about the program and the congressional fight over Obamacare may create uncertainty among the newly eligible, Kovacevic-Bugay said. "I'm hoping people aren't discouraged from applying."
But she said: "If it's slow in the beginning, that's OK."
There will be plenty of time for people to apply for Medi-Cal and subsidized insurance plans, Forbes said.
Under the new law, people will have from today through March 31 to enroll in Covered California health plans for 2014. Medi-Cal enrollment begins today, but coverage will not begin until Jan. 1 and there is no enrollment cut off date.
"People don't need to panic," Forbes said. "Just be calm and patient."
Application help for health benefits under the Affordable Care Act:
Covered California at www.coveredca.com or (888) 975-1142.
Fresno County Department of Social Services (855) 832-8082.
• Source: Fresno Healthy Community Access Partners