ICHS is training staff to handle the high volume of people who need help with health insurance. • Courtesy Photo
ICHS is training staff to handle the high volume of people who need help with health insurance. • Courtesy Photo

Rollout of President Barrack Obama’s new health care law is in full effect and this means everybody must sign up for health insurance or face penalties after March 31.

While Washington has a higher number of enrollees in its state exchange program compared to other states, many people have reported issues accessing and navigating the online marketplace known as Healthplanfinder (wahealthplanfinder.org). For many Asian Pacific Americans in Seattle’s International District, the challenges have been magnified due to language barriers and unfamiliarity with the new system.

The International Community Health Services (ICHS) and several other organizations are offering free resources to those struggling to navigate Healthplanfinder and the confusion about the Affordable Care Act.

“The primary obstacle that we have come across is that obviously the website is not available in any Asian and Pacific Islander languages,” said Michael McKee, director of Health Services and Community Partnerships at ICHS. The site is only available in English and Spanish.

Other obstacles are the result of complex citizenship statuses. For many immigrant families, family members have different residency statuses. For instance, the children in the family could be citizens while the parents are legal citizens who have not been here long enough to be eligible for Apple Health/Medicaid.

“There’s a number of different types of scenarios that can play out, including one parent may be documented and one may not be,” McKee said.

It can sometimes take more than 60 minutes and multiple visits to the ICHS to get coverage, McKee said. Somehow, McKee explained, “everyone was surprised” by the heavy demand for in-person assisters and the call center. The Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which administers the newly created online health insurance marketplace doubled their call center staff in December to meet the need.

To meet the high volume of demand locally, Public Health Seattle and King County as well as the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations helped fund in-person assisters who can speak Asian and Pacific Islander languages to provide help at the clinic.

When the new health legislation, commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” was signed into law in 2010, the ramifications of it were confusing not only for the API population but for everyone, McKee said. He described how some people in the community thought “Obamacare was a health insurance plan that they could just sign up for.”

There was also confusion on understanding that the Healthplanfinder offered many choices of health plans to suit the needs of the customer.

In January, the state Exchange enrolled more than 323,000 in health plans since the website was launched on October 1. Of these, about 237,000 are newly eligible for Medicaid as a result of the state’s expansion of Medicaid, another result of Obamacare.

In total, ICHS reports they have enrolled over 3,200 people and have assisted more than 6,000 in starting applications and providing education and outreach.

“Overall this has been successful in terms of the number of people trying to enroll in insurance,” said Abbie Zahler, Health Advocacy Manager at ICHS. “We just wanted folks to know that there’s still time and there’s help if they need it.”

People seeking assistance on getting enrolled for health insurance can also visit the Asian Counseling and Referral Services, Chinese Information and Service Center, and the Denise Louie Education Center.

If you need assistance and want to visit ICHS, walk-ins are welcome. However, it’s recommended that you call (206) 788-3700 for an appointment due to high demand for in-person assisters. ICHS also recommends visitors bring this information with them to successfully sign up for insurance via the Healthplanfinder:

• Identification
• Date of Birth
• Valid Social Security number
• Estimated proof of income
• Passport and/or Green Card number
• Debit card, credit card, or e-check

For a list of all public events in King County seeking to assist people signing up for health insurance, visit http://goo.gl/3YLsvT.

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