MIAMI — Roughly 1 million uninsured Floridians who repeatedly heard affordable health insurance was just around the corner for them thanks to President Barack Obama’s new law are finding a harsh reality – they’re too poor to qualify.
The Florida House voted last year not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act because of fears that it could eventually cost the state hundreds of millions annually, meaning those earning below the poverty line, $11,490 for an individual or $23,550 for a family of four, aren’t eligible for tax credits through the online marketplace.
Without those tax credits, most people living below the poverty line can’t afford coverage. In Florida, generally only children, pregnant women, the disabled and single parents or caretakers of underage children are eligible for Medicaid, the government’s free health plan for the poor.
“It’s the hardest thing to explain to a consumer that they’re falling in this gap,” said Juanita Mainster, a Miami counselor who helps consumers sign up for health insurance.
She and other counselors estimate only 30 percent of applicants at their Miami office end up signing up for a health plan because they can’t afford it.
Christina Coello, a 27-year-old full-time law student with a pre-existing medical condition, hasn’t had insurance for seven years.
“So when I heard about Obamacare, I thought this is a really good thing for people that have pre-existing conditions.”
But when Coella tried to enroll, she learned she was about $2,500 shy of qualifying for a tax credit, making the premiums impossible to afford on her part-time paralegal salary. Yet, her meager salary is still a bit too much to qualify for Medicaid.
“It’s very frustrating because (the Florida House) doesn’t want to cover people who are supposedly lazy. It’s not only lazy people who need insurance. A lot of students fall into that category,” said Coello, who has a 7-year-old son.
Health advocates are doing what they can so consumers don’t leave appointments feeling hopeless.
Florida CHAIN and navigator groups like the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, which received a federal grant to sign people up for health coverage, are referring consumers to local health departments and community health centers that treat patients on a sliding scale and offer discounted drug programs.
“They’ll keep saying, ‘I’m poor. I should qualify for something.’ And they’re right they should but the fact is this is a state that chose not to expand Medicaid,” said counselor Adrian Madriz.
CHAIN and Florida Legal Services are handing out educational material at community centers, colleges and libraries so consumers can share their frustrations with lawmakers.
The League of Women Voters of Florida has also launched a campaign to educate business leaders and cultivate allies among local Chambers of Commerce, trying to convince them that Medicaid expansion is an economic stimulus opportunity for the state.