Deadline for health insurance is March 31; Chattanooga area signup push begins

photo Adam Cowan, left, gets assistance from Tedra Hodge, a certified application counselor with Erlanger, while applying for the Affordable Care Act at the Erlanger Health System's Medical Mall on Monday.

IF YOU GOInformation and enrollment sessions this week:Today• Southside Community Health Center, 100 E. 37th St., noon-3 p.m.• Dodson Avenue Community Health Center, 1200 Dodson Ave., 5-8 p.m.Wednesday• Erlanger Bledsoe, 71 Wheelertown Ave., Pikeville, Tenn., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. CSTThursday• Sequatchie County Courthouse, 22 Cherry St., Dunlap, Tenn., noon-5 p.m. CSTFriday• Erlanger East, 1751 Gunbarrel Road, 1-5 p.m.

MORE INFORMATIONAppointments are required to enroll. Call 423-778-LINK (5465) to make an appointment. People unable to attend during enrollment week can meet through March 31 with Erlanger's certified application counselors.

photo website.

Before Monday, Adam Cowan had been unable to afford insurance for nearly eight years.

He used to have coverage through work, but then his job stopped providing it. For a few years, it was no big deal.

"But now I'm almost 48 and everything is starting to fall apart. I couldn't get insurance in 2006 because of a pre-existing condition," Cowan said Monday at Erlanger Health System.

That all changed before he left.

"I'm excited. For less than $100 a month, I've got health insurance and dental, with no deductible," he said. "And I got to keep my doctor."

Cowan took advantage of a last-minute push by Erlanger hospital, the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga and American Exchange, a Chattanooga-based broker, to get residents signed up for the Affordable Care Act. The open enrollment deadline is March 31 - the last one for those who want coverage in 2014.

For the next month, the partnership will staff certified application counselors at the hospital's campuses, health centers and other locations to help educate and enroll residents who need individual insurance. The counselors will be able to explain plans, and brokers from American Exchange will be available to give residents advice on what plans are best for them. The effort kicked off Monday at the hospital's main campus.

Cowan was one of seven appointments scheduled Monday, according to Katherlyn Geter, a health care navigator for Erlanger who oversees enrollment outreach. And after his visit, he referred two of his friends for appointments of their own.

"That's how it's supposed to work," Geter said. "I think the education is good ... The big challenge is to keep people linked in to care."

Geter and the team will be traveling around the region this month to reach people, but Erlanger's Southside and Dodson Avenue health centers will be taking appointments all week, she said. Each is averaging about four to five appointments a day, because sometimes it can take a while to get people enrolled.

"When you get someone who has never had insurance, and doesn't know how it all works, the education can take some time," she said.

A typical enrollment takes about 40 minutes, Geter said, although Cowan's lasted just under two hours.

Early computer glitches and snafus on hindered enrollment to the program nationwide after it opened in October. And only 8 percent of Tennessee's estimated 800,000 uninsured were enrolled by Feb. 1, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures.

Despite the low numbers, Geter said she sees enrollment picking up.

In February, there were 59,705 Tennesseans signed up for a marketplace plan. That was up from nearly 36,000 at the end of December.

In Georgia, 101,276 people had enrolled by February, and 43,863 people were signed up for a market place plan in Alabama.

"I think it's good that we are seeing enrollment up from January," Geter said. "A lot of that has been that the system has really improved and that has made it easier for people to enroll."

For one thing, now accounts for government subsidies people would receive while they are enrolling online. That reduces the uncertainty people had about signing up, she said.

Only 28 percent of Tennessee's enrolled are below the age of 35. Geter said that number needs to be higher to decrease risk throughout the system. The partnership has been visiting local college campuses to drum up interest.

"With young people, getting them to sign up is important. Most of them aren't really thinking about health insurance. Some of them are really surprised at what they could qualify for," she said.

Wes Mohney, a broker with American Exchange, said some people he's worked with have been incredibly surprised.

Depending on income, and what subsidies people can get, insurance under the Affordable Care Act can be nearly free.

"We had a lady qualify for a $.01 a month deductible," he said. "We called just to see if [the company] wanted her to actually pay it. They did."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at or at 423-757-6481.