Macomb County ‘really stepped up' for Obamacare enrollment

Apr 24, 2014 Issues: Health Care

Despite waves of negative media reports, Macomb County “really stepped up” to enroll people in the final days of Obamacare sign-ups, and the result was a number of inspiring success stories, with families in dire financial straits receiving affordable health care.

That was the consensus at a small public forum on Thursday in Sterling Heights by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, held at one of the leading nonprofit agencies that fielded a team of Affordable Care Act enrollment assistants – ACCESS, which traditionally serves the Arab-American community.

“We had a great event March 23 at Macomb Mall. People were just coming and coming to the end. We couldn’t turn anybody away. It felt good to know that we had accomplished a job well done,” said Madiha Tariq, ACCESS health programs manager.

ACCESS alone signed up more than 8,000 people in the tri-county area during the 6-month enrollment period, some 300 to 400 per week in the final month. Two big Macomb County events held in the last weeks of enrollment at the Macomb Intermediate School District building made it clear that “Macomb County really stepped up,” Tariq added.

The final numbers outlining Michigan’s ACA enrollment following the March 31 deadline may be released today, or more likely next week. But those on the giving and receiving end of Obamacare are already certain that the final result was a great success and a “phenomenal, exciting experience.”

Critics still doubt the validity of the 8 million-plus nationwide enrollment figure announced earlier this month by President Barack Obama. In addition, they question whether most of the enrollees will keep up with their insurance premium payments.

But Levin, a staunch ACA supporter, said those so-called navigators who assisted people with online sign-ups deserve a “national debt of gratitude.” The benefits of the program for most are not just better coverage at a lower cost, he added. The ACA also offers peace of mind for enrollees, and emotional rewards for those who assisted with the sign-up period that began Oct. 1.

“It’s spiritual in the sense that … we don’t appreciate the impact on the spirit when people don’t have health insurance,” said Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat who represents most of Macomb County. However, he cautioned: “We’re not going to know the full impact (of the ACA) for a number of years.”

Here are some of the stories the congressman heard:

Linda and Charles Barnett of Taylor were living a typical middle class life until cancer disrupted everything, forcing Linda to quit her job in January 2013 to help care for her severely ill husband, who had been working as a contract worker at the General Motors Tech Center.

“Everything was going great. Both of us were working. Both of us had insurance. And, boom – you get this diagnosis that changes everything,” she told those gathered at the Levin forum.

The couple sought coverage from COBRA, an expensive, temporary health care benefit for the unemployed. The cost was $900 per month and the Barnetts’ share of Charles’ 1-year, $600,000 medical bill was $17,000. But beginning this year the Obamacare exchange provided a policy for the couple that is significantly cheaper and offers better coverage, said Linda Barnett.

“We saved money, we have better coverage and smaller deductibles. Plus, my husband was able to keep all his Karmanos cancer doctors,” she explained. “It was really a godsend for us.”

Najwa Dahdah of Shelby Township recalled “walking on egg shells” during the time when she and her husband were uninsured after giving up their jobs and pursuing a business venture. Dahdah, who suffers from diabetes, told Levin that she and her husband purchased coverage on the individual market that saw their monthly premium jump from $400 to $898. They now have a comprehensive, Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy purchased on the exchange that costs them $134 a month.

Ali Srour of Dearborn Heights was laid off from his job in June 2013. At age 25, his impending loss of health care coverage was not one of his major concerns. But two weeks after his employer-provided insurance benefits expired, he experienced mysterious chest pains and was hospitalized with an illness for two days. The resulting medical bill was $18,000.

Srour used that incident as an incentive to sign up for Obamacare and eventually became an ambassador for the ACA, working for about a month as a navigator at ACCESS. The policy he secured on the ACA online exchange far exceeded his previous coverage, with a $130 monthly premium and a $200 co-pay for hospitalization.

“After I enrolled, I told all my friends, ‘You’ve got to enroll,’” he said.

Elsie Brown of Detroit, 64, lost her job working for a phone bank last year just short of her scheduled retirement. Her diabetes and high blood pressure presented her with high out-of-pocket medical costs. But her low income produced a phenomenal offer on the Obamacare exchange – a monthly premium of 22 cents, thanks to the ACA tax subsidies for those of modest means.

“I was worried I couldn’t afford anything,” Brown recalled. “But when they said the premium was 22 cents, I said, ‘How fast can I get you a check?’”

Awsam Alloos, 34, of Clinton Township, suffered a severe knee injury three years ago and eventually underwent major surgery, though his insurance coverage was minimal. His initial cost was $5,000, followed by physical therapy, follow-up visits to specialists and medications during his long recovery period. None of those expenses were paid by his insurance company.

“I asked the question, ‘What is the purpose of having insurance if it’s no help when you need it?’” he recalled.

With his knee problems lingering, he obtained coverage on the ACA exchange that will pay for most his expenses, including additional therapy.

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