The road to Nov. 1, the first day of open enrollment for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, was paved with uncertainty.
Nevertheless, despite a tumultuous year of attempted health care reform, the ACA — commonly called Obamacare — is still the law of the land, and local assisters such as Thera Beaman sat poised and ready on Wednesday morning to provide free counseling to help those seeking coverage.
Beaman, an outreach and enrollment specialist at Erlanger's Dodson Avenue Community Health Center, has assisted during all five open enrollment periods since the start of Obamacare.
But getting the word out this year has been an uphill battle since the Health and Human Services department slashed Obamacare's marketing budget by 90 percent, leaving local agencies and navigators such as Katherlyn Geter to promote ACA enrollment with minimal support from the federal government.
"This year, it's been challenging because we haven't had that additional assistance," said Geter, the lead navigator for Southeast Tennessee. Like Beaman, Geter has helped people overcome the complexities of the ACA since its inception, and she worries the lack of advertising coupled with a shortened enrollment period will leave many Tennesseans without coverage.
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Although Beaman and the health center's other assister managed to enroll several individuals by Wednesday afternoon, she's "very concerned" about this year's new deadline, which was moved up to Dec. 15.
"I do believe that a lot of people are going to miss the open enrollment period, because a lot of people still have stuck in their minds that they still have until January to enroll," she said, adding that barring a life- changing circumstance, such as marriage, those who miss open enrollment will have to wait until next November to sign up.
Celeste Woods of Chattanooga was one of Beaman's clients Wednesday.
Woods first got Obamacare insurance two years ago and said she's happy with her coverage.
In the past, Woods risked going without health insurance, then a bout with the flu and a high blood pressure diagnosis led her to seek coverage through the ACA, but she needed help.
"I don't have a computer, and I wanted to make sure everything went well, so that's why I went to Dodson Avenue," Woods said. "It was a great experience — it was time consuming, but other than that, she was so helpful."
The ACA allots money for health centers and navigator programs to educate and assist with enrollment, but depending where you live, help may be harder to come by this year.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released preliminary 2017 Navigator Program grant awards in September. Georgia saw a 61 percent reduction in navigator funding, Alabama funding declined 23 percent and Tennessee went down 16 percent, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Family and Children's Service, which leads Get Covered Tennessee, is the state's primary navigator grant recipient. Geter, who works for the agency, said Tennessee was fortunate to see fewer cuts than places such as Georgia.
She will spend the next 44 days traveling around the 11-county region educating and enrolling as many people as possible.
"We're making sure they know we're still out here helping," she said.
Although insurance premiums have risen overall, Geter said those who qualify for tax credits could still wind up spending little to nothing on health insurance.
"We encourage individuals to look at this and to see if it is going to be a good fit, especially if you have the income within the parameters — you can get a real affordable, comprehensive medical plan," she said.
As the deadline approaches, appointments for enrollment assistance will fill up, and this year could be worse as people are blindsided by the early cutoff.
"It is wild, because a lot of time people cancel their appointments and try to squeeze in before the deadline," said Everlena Holmes, executive director of Enroll the Region, a group of 15 volunteers — trained by Geter and other experts — that also assists people in the Chattanooga area.
Unlike certified navigators and assisters, the volunteers are able to enroll residents in Georgia and Alabama.
"My passion is to help people improve their lives," Holmes said.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.
This story was updated at 11:41 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 to correct the deadline to Dec. 15.