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While Obamacare Signups Lag in Texas, Travis County Keeps Up Momentum

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT News
A field organizer with Insure Central Texas speaks to staff at an Austin tattoo parlor in the last few days before the March 31 deadline to sign up for health insurance.

Less than two weeks remain for people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Local groups are ramping up their efforts to remind people it's time to sign up or pay a tax penalty. And with little time left, groups working to sign people up for health insurance are branching out to find every last person they can.

Sarah Mangrem is the field director with Insure Central Texas, a group under local nonprofitFoundation Communities. She recently spent the day targeting young people at some interesting locations.

"We are focusing on tattoo parlors likeGully Catwhere are right now because we’re finding a lot of those young invincibles, the people who have been procrastinating and putting it off," she says.

People like Naftali Mora. He says he’s unemployed and has never had health insurance, and says it helps to know he can go to one of the Insure Central Texas centers to get one-on-one guidance.

"I don’t know too much about it," Mora says. "I’ve never had health insurance for the most part. So I’d rather have someone there to work with me."

For him, he says the motivation to sign up now isn’t so much the tax penalty he’ll pay in 2015 if he doesn’t get insured. It’s his political affiliation. "I’m a big Democrat so I was all for him doing it so now it’s just I want to do it because that’s what I fought for in voting for Obama," he adds.

Some of these youths, however, are a tougher sell. Julian Love says he is going to stick to holistic medicine and avoid health insurance.

"A while back we had allergy shots, but we don’t get sick as often to be … or maybe because we’re self-employed, we don’t have the benefit and we just don’t want to spend too much money  on health care," Love says.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggetturged the volunteers to keep spreading the word about tax credits to motivate people like Love. He says not enough people are signing up in Texas.

"Too few of our neighbors, despite our best efforts, have exercised their right that we worked so hard to get through the Affordable Care Act," Rep. Doggett says. "Indeed across Texas, about nine out of 10 of those who are eligible to participate in the exchange, have not yet enrolled. They’ve not yet selected a plan."

But he also praised Travis County groups for what they have done. Central Health – Travis County’s hospital district – has put forth a lot of the funding for the outreach. Marjorie Petty, the regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says if has hiccups, they happen when a wave of people are signing up.

" is working. Now we understand periodically there may be about an hour blip because there’s a new surge of people going online," Petty says.

In Travis County efforts have also singled out musicians and restaurant workers, who make up a large part of the uninsured workforce. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country but is lagging behind in health care signups. Professor Charles Begley at the University of Texas School of Public Health says it will take years to diagnose the factors behind the low enrollment numbers.

"This was never intended to be a one-shot deal. This is a four or five, ten-year marathon. It’s not a 100-yard-dash race," Begley says. "It will take a couple of years for people to find out exactly what they’re missing in terms of health insurance coverage, the effects of the penalty."

The tax penalty will go up after the first year for those who don’t get insured. Begley says that – along with all this local outreach -- will help bring people out of the sidelines.

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