Health & Family

HHS chief visits Charlotte to talk about insurance enrollment deadline

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell talks with barbers and patrons at Headlines Barber Shop on Independence Boulevard.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell talks with barbers and patrons at Headlines Barber Shop on Independence Boulevard. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

At Charlotte’s Headlines Barber Shop, regular customers got their hair cut Friday morning amid a crowd of photographers and reporters following a special visitor from Washington.

Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, chose this spot in a strip mall on Independence Boulevard because, for the second year, it is offering in-person assistance for people who want to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

“What we know is that people hear about this (insurance) from trusted voices,” Burwell told Derrick Bennett, who owns the barber shop with his wife, Season. “You’re the trusted voices. That’s how we reach people. What you all are doing is so important.”

Burwell’s visit coincided with the impending deadline to enroll for insurance through the federal marketplace. Open enrollment for 2016 coverage at www.healthcare.gov runs through Jan. 31, but people must enroll by Tuesday if they want coverage to start on Jan. 1.

At the barber shop that has its own pool table, Burwell spoke with barbers as well as patrons wearing neck-high capes to deflect hair clippings. Manuel Jones, a self-employed trucker, told her about his pleasure at finding a policy for himself and his teenage son for only $275 a month, after qualifying for a $174 per month subsidy.

“Seven out of 10 folks in the marketplace can find a plan for $75 a month (in premiums after a subsidy),” Burwell said. “And eight of 10 get financial assistance.”

Whitney Wagner, one of eight barbers working Friday, asked Burwell what could be done to get North Carolina to expand Medicaid to more low-income people. Burwell and Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who accompanied her, laughed. They know that North Carolina and South Carolina are among states whose legislatures have refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without coverage.

“Thirty states in the country have already done it,” Burwell said. She said the governors of South Dakota, Alabama and Louisiana have indicated interest. For North Carolina, she added, “I think it’s going to happen eventually.”

Burwell also met Julieanne Taylor, a lawyer with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, who makes appointments each Friday at the barber shop to help people with insurance enrollment. Season Bennett advertises the service through posters and social media. “Not having insurance is one of the quickest ways to financial ruin,” she said.

Later in the day, Burwell visited the Legal Services office on Elizabeth Avenue, where she watched as consumers sat side-by-side with about 10 volunteer and paid navigators who helped them sign up for insurance on laptop computers.

One reason Burwell chose Charlotte for Friday's visit is that North Carolina ranks third in the nation, behind Florida and Texas, in enrolling consumers through the federal online marketplace.

Charlotte is one of 20 U.S. cities in a competition to enroll the highest percentage of customers in the marketplace in 2016, Burwell said. The winning city will get a visit from President Barack Obama. “Charlotte seems to be on a roll,” she said to applause. Careful not to play favorites, she added: “Atlanta may be on the list too.”

Enrollment events ahead

As of this week, more than 2.8 million consumers had selected plans through the online marketplace, including 192,760 in North Carolina. That includes both new enrollees and those returning to shop for private health insurance plans at www.healthcare.gov.

North Carolina ranks third in the nation, behind Florida and Texas, in enrolling consumers through the federal online marketplace. Burwell praised that outcome, giving credit to the network of organizations that coordinate enrollment efforts across North Carolina.

In Mecklenburg County, where three insurers offer 27 plans on the federal marketplace, 70,000 people have insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and 95 percent got premium subsidies, according to Kenneth Schorr, executive director of Legal Services.

Burwell reminded people that the federal ACA requires most U.S. residents to have health insurance or pay a penalty. Those who remain uninsured in 2016 will face fines when they file their 2016 tax returns – $695 per adult or 2.5 percent of household income. For a family of four earning $70,000 a year, she said that could amount to more than $2,000.

Insurance plans purchased on the exchange for 2015 will automatically renew if policyholders do nothing. But Burwell said it’s wise to shop around. Plans have changed, rates have gone up on some plans, and networks of hospitals and doctors also have changed.

To help Charlotte-area consumers find affordable health coverage, several local groups are hosting free enrollment events over the next few days. On Saturday and Sunday, health insurance navigators will be at the Legal Services office on Elizabeth Avenue and at Venus 21 Salon on Independence Boulevard. On Tuesday, assistance will be provided at C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Wilkinson Boulevard.

Appointments will be accepted, but walk-ins will be served in the order of arrival. Details: 855-733-3711, www.getcoveredamerica.org/connector.

Enrollment assistance events

▪ Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.-5 p.m., Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, 1431 Elizabeth Ave.

▪ Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Venus 21 Beauty Salon, 7308 E Independence Blvd., Suite B.

▪ Tuesday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., C.W. Williams Community Health Center, 3333 Wilkinson Blvd.

A 24-hour call center provides appointments and assistance daily, 800-318-2596 or 855-733-3711.

The Get Covered Calculator, a Web-based tool, allows consumers to estimate the monthly premium and tax credit/subsidy a consumer can expect. www.getcoveredamerica.org/calculator

Healthcare.gov also provides a calculator to estimate total out-of-pocket costs for specific plans, including premiums, deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance.

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