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Covenant House signs up more than 100 for health care

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Technical difficulties are still plaguing the federal website for health insurance sign up, but that hasn't stopped dozens of Charleston's homeless residents and others from signing up for health insurance over the last two weeks.

The staff at Covenant House have signed up more than 100 people for Medicaid or private health insurance since open enrollment began on Oct. 1, drop-in center coordinator Wilsie Herlihy said.

The non-profit agency has a drop-in center for homeless people, some of whom live outside or in shelters. Besides their clients, the staff has also helped sign up a few people who work nearby at Soho's in Capitol Market and came in for help.

Many of the people that Covenant House serve "have never had health care and have given up on the dream of ever having health care," Herlihy said.

Open enrollment in the newly-created health insurance marketplaces and expanded Medicaid began Oct. 1 and will continue through March 2014. Under the Affordable Care Act, the state has expanded its Medicaid program to those who make up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line, or $15,282 for an individual.

Herlihy and others at Covenant House have helped the clients sign up, mostly for Medicaid via the state's website, www.wvinroads.org and with paper applications. A few others have signed up for a health insurance plan.

As trained community assisters, Herlihy and other Covenant House staffers were supposed to connect their clients to other helpers that were to actually lead people through the application process.

But directing their clients, many of whom have mental illnesses, to other agencies would have been more difficult than leading them through the application process themselves, Herlihy said.

"We were [supposed to be] to be community assistors, but how could we not [help enroll them] when it's just that easy, and it is that easy," she said.

Herlihy said the initial rush they experienced on and around Oct. 1 has died down some. To reinvignorate it, she went to Manna Meal, a soup kitchen at St. Johns Episcopal Church and a main hub for Covenant House clients to encourage people to sign up.

"The vibe that I got [there] was that people who do not have health care-- especially people who are not just blatantly homeless ... they're embarrassed and they don't speak up," she said. "They're embarrassed to say, 'I don't have health care.'"

No one seemed interested when she spoke but then she got about 20 calls from people wanting more information about signing up, she said.

There's a stigma attached to not having health insurance, she said.

I'm baffled by the number of people who haven't had it for years and years and years and are just a heart attack away from losing everything they have," Herlihy said.

Coverage under Medicaid expansion starts January 1. Herlihy said she hasn't received confirmation yet about any of the clients she's signed up. For many of the clients, the reality of having health care won't hit home until they have a medical card in hand, she said.

Herlihy said she's concerned about the reception that her clients will receive come January when they begin seeing doctors and other health care providers.

 "I'll never send my guys into doctors' offices where they feel resented," she said.

Herlihy said she's honored to help her clients sign up for health care.

"It's a shame that our most fragile citizens are not only denied health care benefits, or were at least, but they're living outside, what more could we possibly do," she said.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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