In the auditorium of the downtown Chattanooga Public Library on Saturday, state and local officials were on the last push to educate Tennessee and Chattanooga-area residents about the Oct. 1 start of sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act.
"I would not say that anyone is well-prepared right now," said Dr. Mary Headrick, an internal medicine practitioner and Affordable Care Act volunteer. "We're all working hard and fast and passionately to get there."
About 35 people sat in the audience and listened to explanations of what the enrollment date means, who is eligible and what the sign-up process will be like. Estimates are that 50,000 people in Hamilton County and more than 800,000 in Tennessee don't have insurance.
"Inform. Educate. Enroll," said Joe Winick, senior vice president of planning and business development at Erlanger Health System. That's the goal of hearings like Saturday's: inform people about the Affordable Care Act, educate them about coverage and enrollment and, it's hoped, get folks signed up.
After more than three years of planning, talking and preparation, the country is entering the home stretch of what has been a hot debate about the universal health care bill Republicans call "Obamacare." This is boots-on-the-ground time.
"I think we're at a point in this country when we can end the issue of so many people being uninsured -- and that is what is so dramatic about the Affordable Care Act," said Dr. Chris Young, a Chattanooga anesthesiologist and chairman of the Tennessee Medical Association.
But as has been evident throughout the bill's history, it's not going to be easy.
Officials and volunteers at Saturday's forum almost universally agreed -- the hard part is reaching Tennesseans in outlying areas.
"The rural counties are a real hard nut to crack," Headrick said. Rural residents don't have ready access to information about the plan to provide universal coverage, or to the technology to sign up in the online marketplaces where private insurers will offer policies for sale.
A federal grant is helping with that, at least locally. Winick said Erlanger applied for and received a federal grant to pay for mobile devices, so that enrollment counselors can set up nearly anywhere to inform and enroll people.
"What we want is people to have insurance," he said.
To achieve that, Pat Combs, a Tennessee Health Care Campaign volunteer, said the campaign needs more help.
"I think there's enough education, not enough educators," she said.
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.