- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Hundreds of uninsured people waited in lines at hospitals, multicultural centers and other sites across Texas on Monday, hoping to buy a health insurance plan through President Barack Obama’s federal marketplace before an 11 p.m. CDT enrollment deadline.

Navigators and others trained to assist with enrollment prepared to stay at their posts late into the night working to overcome not only a time crunch but a website that kept freezing or bumping people out of the system midway through the process. At the very least, they hoped to get as many as people to begin enrolling so they could then qualify for the delay the Obama administration granted to those who at least started the process by March 31.

Those who don’t get enrolled in this round will have to wait until November for another opportunity to get health insurance through the marketplace and learn if they qualify for a subsidy. In Texas, where nearly one in four people lack insurance - the highest rate in the nation - enrollment is viewed as crucial to the program’s overall success. By March 1, about 295,000 residents had enrolled, less than half the 629,000 in the state that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had projected would enroll by the deadline.

Azeb Yusuf, 45, a program coordinator at the Somali Bantu Community of Greater Houston, has been working since March 8 with a navigator provided by the City of Houston to reach as many refugees as possible.

By 8:30 a.m. Monday, more than a half-dozen people from Ethiopia, Nepal, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and other war-torn areas waited inside a small room to see the navigator. Many had been there several times before. On this last day, they took a day off from work, hoping to meet the deadline.

Besides enrollment assistance, they also needed the help of interpreters who speak languages such as Amharic and Tigrigna, the latter being what is spoken in Eritrea.

Yusuf said it can take hours for an interpreter and whoever is assisting with the Affordable Care Act process to help on the phone simultaneously.

“And in the middle of this, the person from Affordable Care disappears and the interpreter is on the line,” Yusuf said.

She said a client was on hold so long waiting for an enrollment person to come back on the phone line last week that the interpreter fell asleep.

“And he started snoring,” Yusuf added, laughing.

As Yusuf stood in the waiting area taking down names, more people streamed in and she showed them how to start enrolling on their smartphones.

Misrak Tessema, a 31-year-old mother of two who arrived in Houston from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, three years ago, took the day off from her cable assembly job to get enrolled. She clutched a folder stuffed with paperwork as she waited for a navigator to help her.

“Obamacare is full coverage,” Tessema said, noting that the county-provided health assistance she receives is so unwieldy she has been waiting weeks for a doctor’s visit for an ear infection. “We’ve been coming back and forth and back and forth to get an appointment. It was just so overwhelming with the waiting period and I wasn’t able to get off from work.”

Suk Sanyasi, a 24-year-old refugee from Nepal who arrived in Houston six months ago, is currently on Medicaid but worries he won’t have insurance when it expires next month. He’s even more concerned that he will have to pay a federal penalty if he and his wife don’t get insurance.

And he’s not sure he can afford insurance given that his income is about $1,900 a month and $900 of that has to go to rent. Raising his 3-year-old son also comes out of that monthly amount.

He tried to enroll several times and found a silver plan for him and his wife that would cost $85 a month, but he said, “It’s too much for me.”

More than three dozen people waited to enroll at a nearby multicultural center run by the city. Spokesman Porfirio Villarreal with Houston’s Health and Human Services Department said centers across the city would remain open until at least 10 p.m. Monday.

Juana and Alberto Lopez, both 50, sat nervously with a city-hired application counselor waiting to learn whether they qualified for a subsidy. Their 20-year-old daughter, Juanita, was with them.

Alberto Lopez, unemployed and on disability since he became ill with cirrhosis, might qualify for Medicaid, Juanita Lopez said, explaining that her 3-month-old daughter also has Medicaid.

With her 13-year-old sister also at home, Juanita Lopez doesn’t believe the family could pay more than $50 a month for insurance. At the moment their income is about $1,200 a month between her mother’s wages as a housekeeper and her father’s disability. Most of the money goes to a monthly rent of $1,000, she said.

But Monday was the first time they tried to apply.

“We weren’t sure if we had to do it or not,” Juanita Lopez said. “The whole process was so confusing.”

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP .

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