Congresswoman Terri Sewell

Representing the 7th District of Alabama In Clarke County, Congresswoman Sewell Tries to Spread the Word About Obamacare

Dec 19, 2013
In The News
GROVE HILL, Alabama – The Affordable Care Act has taken a beating since the ill-fated launch of the government’s enrollment website in October. 

But not in this audience.

It was important, Sewell said, that every health plan contain a bare minimum set of standards.

More troubling to Sewell is the fact that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has refused to accept federal funds to expand eligibility under Medicaid. That has left some people in a no-man’s land – too rich to qualify for the low-income government health program but too poor to qualify for subsidies under Obamacare.

Michelle Pugh, 28, said she found out Thursday night that she falls into that category. A fast food worker, she said she does not make enough money to afford company-sponsored insurance but also makes too much to get Medicaid. She said she used to have health insurance through Blue Cross and Blue Shield but let her coverage lapse because she could not afford the premiums.

The 30 or so people attending a health care forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, were not interested in bashing the law – only getting information about how to sign up.

So-called “navigators” were on hand at the Vivian P. Gilmore Senior Center in Clarke County to tell folks how to apply for coverage under the law most commonly called Obamacare. Those navigators spent time one-on-one helping folks fill out insurance applications – folks like Affie Horn.

The 58-year-old Whatley woman said the navigator told her she would find out in three weeks if she qualifies for health insurance subsidies under the law. She said she desperately needs the help because of a variety of health ailments that forced her to stop working last year after more than 30 years.

She said she suffers from fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome and heart and thyroid problems. She said her doctor told her it would cost $450 up front for heart tests from a specialist.

“They know what they want to do. They know what they need to do,” she said. “But they can’t do it.”

Horn said she had insurance when she worked as a restaurant cook but lost coverage when her health problems forced her to leave her job. She said she was eligible for Medicaid for about two months but lost that coverage when she began drawing disability payments.

If Horn does not qualify, she will have little recourse but to wait until she turns 62 and becomes eligible for Medicare, the old-age health insurance program. Close to tears, she said she is frustrated because she worked hard most of her life.

“I just don’t understand the system,” she said.

Thursday night was the fifth information session Sewell has sponsored in her district. She has been trying to spread the word about Monday’s looming deadline for applying in order to be eligible for health coverage beginning Jan. 1. The enrollment period will continue until the end of March but people who miss the Monday deadline will not get insurance right away.

“There was a bumpy start,” Sewell said, alluding to the website problems. “I think everyone knows about the bumpy start.”

Sewell said the system has improved, but the session Thursday suggests it is still not bug-free. Navigators said the website went down when they were talking to people and had to take applications by hand. Kathy Montague, a navigator from the Tombigbee Health Care Authority, said about 15 people filled out applications Thursday.

Sewell has opposed repeated Republican efforts – there have been 41 separate votes – to repeal Obamacare.

“To me, we’re wasting taxpayer money,” said Sewell, who shared an anecdote about getting a free appendectomy when she was a student in London two decades ago. “It’s not a perfect law. Medicare and Medicaid weren’t perfect programs when they first came about.”

Sewell attributed some of the opposition to the law to antipathy toward President Barack Obama. And she defended one of the law’s most unpopular provisions that have made certain barebones health plans illegal, resulting in termination notices to 87,000 Alabamians who had private insurance through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama.

Waiting in line to talk to a navigator, Sharon Owens said she feared she would be in the same boat. She said she also works for a fast food restaurant but cannot afford the company-sponsored health plan.

“It’s bad,” she said.

Navigators on hand Thursday said there is nothing they can offer except to fill out the application and hope folks qualify for subsidies. Sewell urged those people to contact their state representatives and ask them to put pressure on Bentley to change his mind.

“There are a lot of people who fall in that gap. My hope is the state Legislature and the governor will see the light,” she said.

Updated at 8 a.m. on Friday to correct an error in the Medicare eligibility age.